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Leave It Out!

Yesterday, 58,466 students received the results of their Leaving Certificate Examinations in Ireland. Cue the usual messages and platitudes on all forms of media – social and mainstream – telling those who had received their results that  they are more than the pieces of paper sent to them by the Department of Education and Skills. Posts popped up on Facebook and Twitter reassuring those who had received their results that they (the posters) had not been asked how they did in their LC since nineteen-splat. People posted stories of their own devastation, and gave jolly, positive endings to those stories.

Experts were heard on the radio telling parents how to deal with their children’s stress, disappointment, and changes of heart. There were also other experts discussing how to ask for a paper to be marked again, as well as how to cope with the financial issues that stem from having children going to college.

Pat Kenny, in the lead-in to introducing a guest and discussing the differences in the Irish and UK systems,  boasted ‘Stress? We’ll show you stress!’ as though having more than 58,000 (mainly) young people stressed over exams, and their results was a good thing.

I was struck by how, in this instance, Irish society seems to be talking out of both sides of its mouth. We spend at least two years instilling in our young people that this exam is the most important thing they will ever do; it is the focal point of the final two years of school. They are prepared and primed and goaded and scolded and lectured and cajoled into thinking and feeling that the result of this examination defines them and their futures. Then, once the results are out, the tune is changed significantly and the song is ‘You are more than the sum of your points‘. If you’ll pardon me for saying so, I think it’s a case of ‘too little, too late’ if you’re giving kids this message at this point in time.

Those who defend the current system cite our points-system as a ‘leveller’ – that the only thing that will get you into a course is having enough points. I disagree, however; students who struggle and who don’t get the help they need in school have to pay for help. Only those who can afford to pay for this help can access it; so there is a distinct advantage to students from more affluent backgrounds and the idea of a ‘level playing field’ goes out the window.

Why would we want to put our children through this much stress, worry, anxiety, and fear? As parents, educators and concerned members of society, why are we doing this to our young people year after year? People who complain about the Irish education system – from ‘having’ to get their children christened in order to get them into the local school (because it’s Catholic-run), to ‘having’ to put up the system that stresses, upsets and worries their children (and them) – but I do wonder why. There are alternatives. Scoring well in the leaving certificate is not the only way to get in to college or university in Ireland. Mainstream school is not the only option. In fact, in Ireland, we are very lucky to have a constitutional right to educate our children whenever and however we see fit. It’s time, I think, that more people explored the different options; time that more people thought outside the strictures of the Irish curriculum (which discourages critical thinking, philosophy, and ignores the needs and rights of gifted and talented children); and time that more people they wanted more for their children.  More for them than the stress and anxiety and worry – and the poor standard of education – that the current system provides.

More on Poverty & Education

My piece yesterday on education and poverty struck a nerve with many of you. I received a slew of messages here, on Facebook, on Twitter, and on my phone, from women who found themselves in similar situations. Women who tried desperately hard to educate their way out of poverty. Women who tried to grab life by the scruff of the neck and gain an education for themselves so they could lift their families out of poverty.

Some of us end up pursuing more than one degree in an effort to improve our circumstances. Unfortunately, in Ireland, if you want to pursue a second degree that is not higher on the NFQ than one you already have, you will not receive state funding. That means that if you find the MA you have isn’t enough to secure employment – and you can’t, for whatever reason, pursue a PhD – you will have to self-fund. This is what I ended up doing. My intention was to use the money from a settlement for sexual abuse to pay my fees (and for the therapy I need as a result of the abuse to keep me mentally healthy).  The problem is that one of the brothers who raped and otherwise sexually abused me decided not to honour the settlement. In desperation, I launched a Go Fund Me campaign explicitly, exclusively and entirely to ensure that I stay fit enough to parent, and that I can finish my degree and graduate.  And, then, maybe – just maybe – get a job somewhere. Anywhere.

It struck me earlier today how gendered this all is. The men walk away from their financial obligations, and abuse the children they have decided not to support. They further abuse the women to whom they don’t pay child support because they know that (most) mothers will go hungry before they allow their child/ren to suffer.

The structures of our society and our legal system are patriarchal and allow men who do not wish to support their children, to walk away from their obligations. The women who are then responsible for every aspect of raising the children are then vilified by the society that does not men to account. This, in turn, enforces the belief that many of these men (and, to be honest, I am thinking of specific men; not necessarily men in general) hold; that women deserve to be abused. That women who stand up to the men who bully them need (in my ex-husband’s words) ‘to be taught a lesson’.

Even before I became a mother, I knew one thing; no woman creates a child on her own. Not even those who have virgin births or those who claim impregnation by entity. To continue to promulgate the myths around mothers who are forced to raise their children on their own shifts the focus from those who are doing nothing for their families to those who are doing everything they can for their families. Those who are doing all they can to make their lives, their children’s lives and, therefore society better.  Ironically, we are frustrated by the very society we are trying to improve as we are trying to improve it.

Ireland may no longer lock up lone mothers and sell their babies, but it has a long way to go before it can become in any way congratulatory over the way it does treat them.

 

 

Educated Poverty

Pic of Student Card number erased

Yesterday, I read this piece in the Journal. I didn’t write it – but I could have.

Those of us who parent alone – and the vast majority of us are female – experience the highest rates of deprivation: Nearly 60% of those in single-parent households live with the lack of basic necessities. And, according to the CSO, more than half a million people live in one parent families. That’s a lot of lack.

Like many poor people, lone parents are blamed for their circumstances and for their poverty. In spite of the fact that many women are married, or in stable relationships when they have their children, they are judged as feckless ‘young wans’ whose only desire is to ‘sponge off the state’. May of the comments on the piece I’ve linked to above demonstrate this. One of the things that bothers me about nasty comments and judgements aimed at single mothers is the fact that those who deride them are picking on the wrong parent. They are picking on the parent who is actually parenting. They are picking on the parent who didn’t abandon their child. They are picking on the parent who is doing their best, in spite of the odds, which are stacked against them.

For the longest time, the accepted narrative is that the only way out of poverty is education. Sadly, that’s only half the story. As a woman who has been parenting on my own in Ireland for nearly 12 years, I have direct, personal experience of this. I returned to education when my eldest was 3.5 years old, and my youngest was just 16 months old. Four years later and I was able to put the letters BA (Hons) after my name. Now I had a degree, I was sure I’d find (or make) work for myself.

Sadly, I was wrong. I graduated in 2009, when the Celtic Tiger was in its death throes. Few places were hiring. Even fewer were hiring new graduates. Even fewer would even acknowledge an application from a single parent of two young children. After a year of trying to secure gainful employment (and giving many, many hours for free to NGOs and charities and publications), I returned to education. In 2012, I added ‘MA’ to those letters after my name. Now, surely, someone would hire me.

Again, I was wrong in thinking that I would be offered a job by a company in Ireland. To add insult to injury, several of those employers who deigned to employ me had no difficulty accepting my services for free before they had ‘openings’ for which I applied. Repeatedly, when applying for jobs I was already doing for NGOs and other agencies for whom I had done volunteer work, I was told that I lacked the ‘law piece’. So I applied, and was accepted, to the Law School at Queen’s University in Belfast.

In between finishing my MA and starting my LLM, I was accepted on to a PhD programme at Trinity College, Dublin. I did the first year ‘off books’ (a term meaning that – while I was studying – I hadn’t paid fees, so I wasn’t technically registered, and my access to certain things was restricted). When it came time to start my second year at Trinity, I simply couldn’t do it. I couldn’t commit my kids to another three years of poverty. I opted to go to Queen’s instead, thinking that I was better off to spend a year studying intensely and get myself a degree at the end of it, than spend a year studying intensely and still only be part way through a degree. Even if that degree was a PhD. So far, the idea that a primary degree and two Master’s degrees will open up employment opportunities has proved unfounded – but I live in hope (because, frankly, I have little else).

Tertiary education, to me, means being hungry. I don’t mean that metaphorically, I mean it literally. When I’m studying, I can’t afford to eat three meals a day. So I don’t. I drink a lot of coffee (that I bring from home), and insist that it’s all in a good cause. And anyway, I can afford to lose a few kilos. Plus, I’ll get a job at the end of it, I tell myself on the days and nights when the gnawing in my stomach distracts me from the words on the page. That last, so far, has proved to be a lie.

No matter how highly educated you are in Ireland, you can’t be sure you’ll get a job. I think part of the reason for that is a lack of ability on the part of Irish employers to recognise, and understand, the value of transferable skills. The idea that the skills single mothers use on a daily basis – financial juggling, multi-tasking, fire-fighting, negotiating, prioritising, communicating with government departments, healthcare, etc. etc. – are useful in the workplace, completely escapes Irish employers. There is also a reluctance to acknowledge that people can retrain, change direction, and bring their previous experience with them. The Irish way is that you have a box that you have been put in, and you must stay in that box forever. Especially if you are a woman. And most especially if you are a woman raising children on your own.

Education, on its own, won’t help lone parents lift themselves out of poverty. It’s a start – but it’s not the complete solution. We need access to jobs once we’ve graduated – and access to quality childcare, and employers who understand that we are no less committed to our jobs than our childfree colleagues. In short, we need support from the state and the society we’re living in. We need the opportunity to put our expensive educations to good use.

 

Charity Begins?

It’s been another rough week for charities in Ireland. That is to say, it’s been a rough week for mis-behaving charities in Ireland. The revelations about misappropriation of funds meant for suicidal people by the charity Console has left the country reeling. Then, news came of financial irregularities in the St John Of God organisation. These come while scandals at the CRC and allegations against Bumbleance are still fresh in the public’s collective memory.

The effect of these scandals is that people who have contributed are – understandably – hurt and upset by the fact that money they have donated, or worked hard to fundraise, didn’t reach the people for whom they intended it. People are also more wary of giving money to charities. It also means that people question how this was allowed to happen. There are supposed to be checks and balances, aren’t there? Isn’t there supposed to be some sort of oversight to ensure that this kind of oversight doesn’t happen? Well, yes, there is.

I sit on the board of directors of an Irish charity and I can assure you that we take our responsibilities very seriously. We are aware that the buck stops with us – that we are personally responsible should there be any irregularities in the finances – or elsewhere – that we don’t report. We have regular board meetings and, at each of these, our accountant comes along and goes through the finances with us. He invites questions, and answers them thoroughly. We are audited annually. Recommendations made by the auditor are acted upon and we were delighted that this year the auditor had no recommendations to make, except for us to keep doing as we’re doing.

Directors of Irish charities are not allowed to accept payment for their work on boards. They are allowed reasonable expenses. In the case of the charity on whose board I sit, this amounts to transport paid at the rate of public transport, a lunch when at the meeting – we sit through lunchtime – and an allowance of just over €10 for a meal if you are away from home for more than eight hours. We sit on the board because we believe in the work of the charity and we want to support it. We sit on the board because it is a way of ‘giving back’. We sit on the board because we feel what we’re doing is important. We do not sit on the board because we want to be given millions of euros for so doing.

I think part of the reason we have trouble with charities in Ireland is that there are so many of them. I’ve said this before, but I think the Irish charity sector has a bit of a ‘People’s Judean Front’ mentality (to borrow a phrase from Monty Python). What this means is that we have a glut of charities in the country all doing essentially the same thing. We have over 20 charities and NGOs working in the area of suicide and self-harm prevention. I’m not entirely sure we need so many – though, of course, each agency would argue for their own unique angle on the issue. I still think that there should be one charity responsible for tackling suicide and self harm, and that all other charities working in the area be amalgamated. I do think that it would be much easier to keep an eye on sector’s behaviour – financial and otherwise – if there was only one agency to deal with.

Normalising

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The family is the first social environment that a child ever encounters. It is the family that tells a child what ‘normal’ is, and what ‘acceptable’ is. If ‘normal’ is tea from china cups and linen napkins, then the child accepts it. If ‘normal’ is no TV after 5pm, then the child accepts it. If ‘normal’ is sexual abuse, then the child accepts that, too. This is how sexual abuse survives and thrives in homes up and down the country. Children who are abused from the time they are tiny have no notion that what is happening to them is unacceptable and abnormal, in a wider societal view.

 

So when people – genuinely puzzled – ask an adult who was abused as a child ‘why did you never tell anyone?’ the answer has a few threads to it: First of all, the abused child has no idea that what is happening to them is not supposed to be happening to them. Abuse does not happen in isolation in a family. Families where children are sexually abused are toxic environments where there are many harmful practices; for example, neglect and abuse often go hand in hand. Put in its most simplistic terms, one parent will neglect the children while the other abuses them. Children in these families will often have no, or few friends, who are allowed to visit. There will be strict rules about having other kids home to visit as well – ‘drop-in’ visitors will not be encouraged and the child who ‘allows’ or ‘encourages’ such visits will be punished. Children who are being sexually abused will have most elements of their lives controlled and ‘managed’ by parents who need to keep the secrets of the home within the four walls of the house. So, with all the other controls exercised over the child, the abuse does not seem out of place (to the child); there is nothing remarkable about it, so they do not think to mention it.

 

Another reason children don’t disclose is because they don’t have the language, the vocabulary or the ability to disclose. Often, children are threatened with vague or real threats of what will befall them if they do discuss what goes on at home. These threats often include the child being told that the abuse is ‘love and no one else would understand’ or that the abuse is the child’s own fault and they will be punished by others if they tell. Shame is often used as way of keeping children quiet about the abuse they are suffering.

 

What happens to children within their families is ‘normal’ to them. As a society, we really need to stop allowing sexual abuse – and, indeed, any abuse – being any child’s ‘normal’.

 

In the Flesh

Last night, I became that mother. I became the mother who looked at her beautiful daughter and said ‘You’re not going out looking like that.’

Except I didn’t say those words, exactly. I said ‘Can you please find something else to wear? I’m not comfortable with you going out exposing so much flesh.’

She glowered at me in a way she started doing when she was about eighteen months old. Now, twelve-and-a-half years later, she has that glower perfected. What she’s feeling rolls off her and comes at you in waves. You always know how she’s feeling, even if you’re not exactly sure why. Last night, as she rifled through her drawers in search of something less revealing, I knew exactly why. She was not one bit happy at her frumpy old ma insisting she put on clothes that covered more flesh than she was currently exposing.

I wasn’t happy – and it wasn’t Ishthara I was unhappy with. It was myself I was unhappy with. I felt like a hypocrite. All her life, I’d been teaching my daughter about bodily autonomy, about how her body belongs to her, and her alone. I’m also of the belief that everyone should be allowed to wear what they like, when they like, where they like, and not be subject to abuse, intimidation, assault, or body-shaming of any description. I have mentioned this belief, several times, to my daughters. Yet here I was, telling my gorgeous 14 year-old that she needed to cover up before she went out.

I fumbled through my first attempt to explain myself to her.

‘It’s not that you should be ashamed of how you look,’ I started. Then I tried again.

‘You’re beautiful – because of how you are, more than because of how you look – and I don’t want you to feel that you should have to hide your beauty but…..’

I stopped. What the fuck was it I was trying to say? I couldn’t find the words, and I didn’t have time to dwell on finding them because I didn’t want her to be late for the disco. She’d been excited about it for weeks and her bestie was standing on the landing waiting. and I was making everything worse.

I took a deep breath and exhaled loudly.

‘You’re gorgeous and I love you more than my own life and…you are all that matters…and people judge, and I’m sorry that they do, but I don’t want people to judge you on what you’re wearing….’

I was close to tears at this stage because I knew I was bollocksing this up. And I knew it was important. And I knew it was important that I didn’t bollocks it up.

‘Teenage boys are bastards!’ burst out of me before I could stop it. I was horrified at myself. ‘I didn’t mean that. It was horribly sexist of me and a gross generalisation. What I mean is, some teenage boys are bastards and…some of think that they can touch anything they see, and the more of you they see, the more they think they can touch.’

That was no better. I was still making a complete pig’s ear of it.

‘I don’t want you to have to change what you wear because of what other people will think but that’s exactly what I’m asking you to do. I’m sorry…’ I was so conflicted, I was tormented by it. For a fleeting moment, I wished I was one of those parents who just lays down the law, and rules with a hard heart and an iron fist.

By now, Ishthara had found something else to wear and was keen to change and get going.

‘I don’t think you should have to hide yourself away, I just…’

She sighed. A deep, painful sigh.

‘Let’s just go.’

As we were heading out the door, I put my hand on her shoulder and turned her to face me. I didn’t want to make things more awkward for her than they already were. I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable around her best friend. But this was really important and I needed to get it right, no matter how many attempts it took.

‘Isha…’ I started again. ‘You are beautiful – and, of course I’m going to say that because I’m your mum, so that’s not empirical – but you are 14 and you look 20. You have the figure of an adult woman. And you have the poise of someone older than you as well. You look 20, but you’re not 20. You don’t have the life experience of a twenty-year-old. That’s nothing to do with being mature, or responsible, or anything other than the amount of years you have been on this planet.  What that means is that you don’t know how to react when people treat you like you’re a lot older, or a lot more worldly than you are. I don’t want you to go out exposing any more skin than you are now because I don’t want you to be in a position where someone else says or does something that makes you uncomfortable and you don’t know how to deal with it.’

Ishthara nodded.

‘Okay,’ she said, less sullen than she had been earlier.

‘D’you remember, last year, when the man on the bridge started hitting on you?’

She nodded again.

‘And do you remember how you felt? And how it wasn’t very pleasant?  And at least I was there, and I was able to deal with him?’

‘Yes.’ I could tell she was listening, taking it all in.

‘Well, when you’re older, you’ll be well able to cope with that kind of attention because you’ll have been around long enough to figure out how to deal with it. It’s the same with the kind of attention you’re going to get by dressing in a way that shows more skin, that is – for want of a better way to but it – sexier than what you’re wearing right now. I don’t want you to feel you have to change anything about yourself, not even your clothes in order for you to feel comfortable, but for now, until you learn how to cope with the attention, how to handle it, I’d prefer if we took care to avoid it.’

Another nod, and this time, a smile.

‘I get it,’ she said. ‘I really do. Now, come on, can we please go?’

Later, as we prepared hot drinks and snacks in the kitchen before bed (she’d been too excited to eat before going out), Ishthara told me she was glad she’d changed before going out.  Apparently, she felt more comfortable in a place with nearly 2,000 strangers when she was wearing more rather than less.

‘It’s okay, Mum. I know you love me,’ she finished.

As long as she remembers that, I think we’ll get through these teenage years intact. In spite of my propensity for foot-in-mouth disease.

 

Mothers, Motherhood, Mothering

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Being a mother is hard. Not least because it is the most important job in the world, and the most important job to get right. It’s also the only job in the world that everyone else feels qualified to judge and comment on. Even if they are not, or never will be, mothers themselves.

 

Mothering is even more difficult when you add the additional burden and complexity of sexual abuse. If your child has been abused, how do you – as a mother – cope? Research tells us that mothers who are made aware that their children have been sexually abused often react in much the same way as people react to a bereavement (Myer, 1984; Hooper, 1992), or they react as though they have been raped or assaulted themselves (Hooper, 1992; Winograd Leonard, 2013). Of course, not every mother is as capable of putting her children first. In my own case, when I disclosed about the fact that my brothers were abusing me, my mother’s response was to make contact with the Rape Crisis Centre. They didn’t deal with people under the age of 16, so I was referred to another facility. My brothers’ propensity for raping was never addressed, however. To this day, it still hasn’t been addressed.

 

At the time, I was told they were sorry and it was impressed on me that I needed to forgive them. (I’ve written up a few of my thoughts on forgiveness here). I was told that they were ‘great lads’, who ‘never gave a moment’s trouble’ and that ‘boys will be boys’. All this did was tell me that the oral, digital, vaginal and anal rape they perpetrated on my body was, somehow, of no consequence, because they were ‘great lads’; and that raping me on a regular basis was not to be counted as them ‘giving any trouble’. The harm they did me was not something to get too upset about because ‘boys will be boys’,  and it is nearly to be expected that they will rape their little sisters.

 

Later, when I told my mother that my father was abusing me, she told me she didn’t believe me. Then she got me and him in a room and told me to repeat my accusations. I did. He said it was my own fault. She said it was my own fault. She was jealous of the fact that her husband was sexually attracted to her daughter. I remember feeling sick. I remember feeling that they were sick in a very, very twisted way. I remember feeling confused, dazed, gaslit (even though I didn’t know, at the time, that’s what it was) and thoroughly, utterly abandoned. I was, somehow, cast as a Jezebel for being sexually assaulted between the ages of two and 17 by three members of my immediate family.  She may not have known at the time that it was happening, but as soon as she did know, my mother took the side of her husband and her eldest two sons against me. Sadly, this kind of victim blaming by mothers is not unusual. Especially when the mother is – like mine – a narcissist. (If you have been the victim of a narcissistic mother, I highly recommend this book as a good place to start understanding that dynamic.)

 

Later, for a woman who was sexually abused as a child, becoming a mother is difficult. I spent the first year of my PhD studies reading about just how hard it is, and was comforted and outraged in equal measure to learn that I am not on my own in this. Not least because intimacy is such a difficult area to inhabit. How do you surrender to an act that has, all your life, been about the other person and their gratification? An act that has been about secrets and lies? An act that has been about power and shame? An act that has had nothing at all to do with love? How do you then try to convince yourself that that same act is something that you can be an active participant in? How do you then try to convince yourself that you are allowed to enjoy such an act? That enjoying such an act does not automatically make you a terrible person?

 

If you manage to resolve that issue within yourself – and if you have managed to escape physical damage to the extent where you are actually capable of conceiving and carrying a child, then maternity care can be fraught with difficulties. Health care providers are often (usually) unaware of the damage that child sexual abuse has on women who have survived it. They are not aware of how to care for such women. As a result, may women report being victimised again during pregnancy, labour and childbirth. These events can re-traumatise a woman who has already been so horribly traumatised.

 

And then, if you manage all that – if you manage to achieve a pregnancy and give birth, and have a healthy baby, what do you do after that? How hard or easy is it to breastfeed? For some women, this feels like an invasion of their bodies all over again. For others, it is hugely empowering because they feel like – finally – their body is doing what it was meant to do. They are choosing to use their breasts for the main (though not the only) purpose those breasts were designed.

 

Still, motherhood is fraught with extra challenges for the woman who has managed to survive sexual abuse and who is trying to raise her child/ren. We have a tendency towards over protection – but we’re aware of that, so we sometimes over-correct in order to be ‘fair’, in order not to be the over protective, overbearing mama – and that bring on anxiety attacks.

 

We worry about the state of our mental health, and the impact that might (will?) have on our child/ren. We worry that, somehow, we have transmitted – in our DNA or through our birth canals – the elements of being a victim on to our children. We worry that they, too, will be abused and we worry about how to warn them, how to teach them to look after themselves, how to know a perpetrator when they see one, how to escape from danger. We worry that these precious children of ours might be better off with someone else: That because of the damage done to us, that because we are so damaged, that our children would be better off with someone else. Someone whole, someone better. Because, when all is said and done, deep down somewhere, we secretly believe what our mothers told us, when they told us it was our own fault.

References:

Hooper, CA, (1992) ‘Mothers Surviving Sexual Abuse’ Routledge; New York

Myer, M. (1984) ‘A new look at mothers of incest victims’, Journal of Social Work and Human Sexuality, 3: 47-58

Winograd Leonard, E. (2013) ‘Expecting the unattainable: Caseworker use of the “Ideal” mother stereotype against the non-offending mother for failure ot protect from child sexual abuse cases’, NYU Annual Survey of American Law, 69(2), pp. 311–356.

Love

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Love is the one non-physical thing we all need to live. Of course, the love of family and romantic love are important, but the person’s love who is most important, is our own.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I am fed up reading self-help books that tell you you must love yourself in order to love someone else; live the life you deserve; live the life of your dreams; have successful relationships etc. I got sick of hearing this on self-development courses that I attended when nobody can answer the question ‘How?’

So about three years ago, I started this quest in earnest and tried to answer my own question – ‘How do you love yourself?’ (These days, I even run workshops on the subject). Of course, I am not the font of all wisdom – I don’t have an answer for every question, and I still have ‘off days’, days when I don’t feel too much love for myself. But I’m a lot better than I was – I’ve clawed my way back from feeling suicidal because I didn’t think I deserved love (so I didn’t love myself) to a place where I really do love myself.

Part of what helped me in my journey from self-loathing was having my daughters. They saw how I treated myself. They heard how I spoke to myself. They flinched when I punished myself. This self-abuse, this self-loathing was not something I wanted to pass on to them in any way, shape or form. In order to create a better future for them, I had to construct a better present for me. Not that I felt (or feel) that anyone should – or indeed can – live for anyone else, but I think that having girls to raise really trained the spotlight on me and what I was modelling for them. Being children, of course, they see through bullshit. They won’t be fobbed off if I pretend to love myself. I have to do it. It has to be the real deal.

You know the way babies are born as what child development experts call ‘ego-centric’ ? They believe that they are the centre of the universe and that the whole world revolves around them. And they’re right. Babies love themselves. They are born fully convinced that they are love, that they are loved, that they deserve to be loved by everyone who comes in contact with them; and the second they feel they may be around someone who doesn’t love them truly, madly and deeply, they react. They cry, they squirm, they look for Mum… Well, you were once a baby. You mightn’t remember it, but you were. And all that love that babies automatically, naturally, have for themselves, you had for your self, too.

Now, do you want the really good news? That love hasn’t gone away. It’s still there. It’s still inside you. That’s the good news. All we have to do is figure out how to access it. That’s the harder part.

If the love you have for yourself has gone into hiding, you need to figure out where it’s hiding, and who chased it there.  I think that, as sexually abused people, we fall out of love with ourselves because we start to believe what other people – those who abused us, especially – tell us tell us about ourselves. And then we think that ‘everybody’ holds this vision of us. And if ‘everybody’ believes that, then they must be right. And we are, therefore, unlovable. We start to believe things that aren’t true about us. We allow other people’s treatment of us, and the messages they send us (verbally, non-verbally, in pictures, and in full-stereo) to  influence us, and tell us a new story about who we are; less lovable than we really are. Recognising these stories, and learning how to change them, is the first step in our journeys to love ourselves.

Knowledge

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The knowledge that a child is being abused is knowledge that must, under Irish law, be reported to the relevant authority. Once a child has revealed information pertaining to abuse, that information must be taken seriously, no matter who the abuse is alleged to be against, or what the child says happened. All allegations of child abuse – including (especially) child sexual abuse – must be taken seriously. What is done with that knowledge and what should be done with it are two different things. But I’m not going to go into great detail here about how the Irish state has failed, and continues to fail,  children in the Irish state with regard to sexual abuse.  Instead, I thought it would be far more productive to set down a number of signs of sexual abuse.

Children don’t always have the words to explain what has happened/is happening to them. There are, however, a number of signs apart from a verbal disclosure that a child is being sexually abused. Among them are:

  • Sleep difficulties – trouble getting to sleep, nightmares, bed-wetting and tiredness during the day (from being woken up/kept awake by the abuser)
  • ‘Zoning out’ or seeming distant
  • Changes in eating habits – like refusing to eat, or constant eating, difficulty swallowing, an aversion to a certain type of food texture.
  • Mood swings – fear, anxiety, aversions to activities they previously enjoyed, rage, insecurity or withdrawal
  • Leaving ‘clues’ – drawings, books open at pages that discuss issues of a sexual nature, for instance
  • Suddenly becoming afraid of certain places or people
  • Refusing to undress (even taking off outer garments) at appropriate times – like when it’s time for a bath, or to go swimming
  • Averting their gaze from mirrors
  • Self-harming
  • Attempts suicide
  • Attempts at running away from home

If you spot one, or more, of these signs in a child or adolescent you know it may not necessarily mean they are being sexually abused. That said, however, any one of these signs indicates that there is an issue worth discussing. So discuss it. Use the knowledge you have.

 

 

Justice

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Justice usually evades those of us who are abused. Even if our abusers face the full force of the law, ‘justice’ and ‘law’ are not the same thing.

If you have managed to escape from an abusive relationship – no matter who the abuser was – and if you have managed to carve out any sort of a life for yourself, then you are one of the fortunate few. If you have managed to challenge your abuser/s, you are in an even smaller minority. If you are now in a position where your healing has allowed you to decide you want justice, then I think the first thing you need to do is decide what justice looks like for you.

Justice, as you know, is very distinct from law. The law is written – my eleven-year-old daughter pointed out a few months ago – by angry, old, white men. Not only that, but it is written for angry, old, white men. If you want a man who sexually assaulted you convicted, then chances are you will be sorely disappointed. The odds are stacked against you.

Many women with whom I have spoken, and who have been through the justice system, mention their regret at engaging with the law. They have expressed disappointment at how they were treated – not (always) by individuals in the system, but by the system itself. So before you, as a victim of sexual assault, decide you want to pursue someone through the law, you might want to take some time to decide for yourself what justice looks like to you. Because the only person who has to be happy with your decision is you. 

 Justice, for you is about you. It’s about what you decide you want and need for yourself in order for you to be able to live the best life possible.  I know when I decided to take action against my brothers  (I have four brothers, but the younger two never assaulted me) for sexually abusing me – up to and including raping me digitally, orally, vaginally, anally and with objects – I did so for a fistful of reasons.

Among them were the desire to ensure that they never abused anyone else (abusers tend to keep abusing unless they are stopped). I did so because I wanted them to see the destruction and the devastation and the damage that they had inflicted on me and, by extension, on my children. And I wanted them to express their remorse for that damage.

This specific goals were too lofty, and too unattainable for me to have any chance of achieving them. I realised that I can’t make someone else be sorry; and I can’t protect entire populations from my brothers; the best I can do is gather together what’s left of my life and cobble it into the best life for myself and my children that I possibly can.  There is a saying that the best revenge is living well – but I contend that, sometimes, the best revenge is merely living.

 

Justice, for me, is gathering what I was left with after years of abuse, and using it to the best of my ability for my good and for the good of as many people as possible. I decided years ago that my life’s purpose was to be the most useful person that I could possibly be. I use my experiences of abuse to help other people make sense of theirs. I use my experiences of abuse to let other people know they are not alone. I use my experiences of abuse to inform my academic research which will, I hope, help even more people understand and deal with the complex trauma they suffer as a result of abuse.

That’s why my book begins with a quote from Hubert Humphrey that reads:

          “Oh, my friend, it’s not what they take away from you that counts.
It’s what you do with what you have left.”

Justice, for me, is doing the best with what I have left and using .

 

Incest

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Incest appears to be the taboo within the taboo. Society prefers to think of rapists and sexual predators as extra-familial. We prefer to think that they are the men who wait, in dark alleys, for women to rape; we prefer to think of them as clergymen who cannot contain the impulses that an ‘unnatural’ life as a celibate dictates they must; we prefer to think of them as coaches and teachers and scout leaders who abuse and traumatise our children. We prefer to think of rapists as cruel, evil men who spike girls’ drinks on nights out in order to abuse and rape them.

We do not like to think of rapists and sexual predators as men who rape their own granddaughters, daughters and sisters. Sadly, however, the majority of sexual abuse is perpetrated by men who are blood relations to those they assault. This makes it harder for the victim to both process and reveal. If the people who are closest to you, the people who are meant to protect you, are the people who are hurting you in the most abominable ways, who are you supposed to trust? Who are you supposed to tell? How do you even find the words to describe what is happening to you?

Family is, to a large extent,  a social construct. It is also held, by many, to be the bedrock of society. As such, there are certain expectations of how a family is supposed to function – or appear to function – there are certain rules and mores that are associated with family. When these rules are transgressed,  as they clearly are in incest situations, the person who is abused is completely abandoned and alone; the ‘family’ which is supposed to be their safe haven and is attacking them. The society of which they are part, tells the abused person, through all manner of messages, that they are expected to behave in a certain way towards their family members including the member/s who is/are abusing them. This dreadful confusion compounds the awful situation the abused person finds herself in. Very often, the internal and external pressure to maintain the status quo and say nothing is overwhelming. As a result, only a small percentage of people actually disclose inter-familial abuse to anyone but their therapists.

People who are victims of incest often feel that they have no choice but to remain within the fold of the family and preserve appearances. They are often pressured to act ‘as though’ all is well within the unit. This, of course, does all manner of damage to the child and maintains the culture of abuse within the family. As a society with a duty to all the members of that society – and, I would argue, especially its children – we need to address this taboo within a taboo and confront incest as the most pervasive form of sexual assault.

 

Help

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When we are abused, we are often manipulated – usually by our abusers, but often by others – into believing that it’s our own fault. I touched on this a bit yesterday , when I spoke about gaslighting. When you think that something is your own fault, it can be difficult to reach out and ask for help.  Often, we believe that, to ask for help, is to admit weakness. In fact, the opposite is true; seeking help is a sign of strength.

Seeking help is admitting that all is not well, and squaring up to the possibility that things might get worse before they get better. Seeking help is a brave thing to do – it is a sign that you have the courage to move on from where you are to where you can be. Seeking help is an act of heroism – a commitment to change, and change is always scary.

There are many different types of help – but they all start with a conversation acknowledging the need for help in the first place. Often, that conversation is with your primary health care worker, but it can equally be with a friend or partner, or a phone service like the Samaritans or a local rape crisis centre. Asking for help is the first step to getting it – and you deserve help. You deserve help to get to a place where you are living your best life. If you’re not living your best life, then you deserve the help you need to get you there.

The thing with getting help as a sexually abused person is that it’s rarely a one-off thing. Or even a one-off capsule of six or eight sessions. The trauma we suffer, as people who have survived sexual abuse, is complex trauma. Part of what this means is that therapy is never just cleanly done and dusted in a few sessions with a suitably qualified therapist. Complex trauma means that we need to deal with different elements as and when they arise; and we will need to deal with things on different levels as and when we are able to.  As we learn more about ourselves and more about the situations we were forced into, we approach and deal with that information.

I would always caution people who have been sexually abused to be careful about the kind of help they seek, and accept. One size does not fit all – and very few therapists are not properly trained in working with people who have a history of sexual abuse. It’s – we’re – complicated, and we deserve to work with people who properly understand the long-term, multiple effects of sexual abuse. Child sexual abuse in particular.

If you can, take the time to find the best practitioner for you. Remember, that they work for you – you are not lucky they will see you; they are getting paid to do so, it’s their job. Good work can only be done if you have a good relationship with your therapist. That means clear boundaries (which work both ways and are respected as such), and a sense that you are valued and respected within the therapeutic relationship. I would suggest contacting and interviewing potential therapists. That’s what I did the last time I went in to therapy and I have to say it was hugely empowering. I wrote and gave a brief outline of my history and asked if the therapists I was contacting felt equipped to work with me. I asked for details of their education and accreditation. In Ireland, this is seen as a very odd thing to do, but I know that if I were hiring a building contractor, I’d want to know that they were qualified, were a member of a professional organisation, and I’d also seek references from people for whom they had already carried out similar work. In the case of therapists, that is neither appropriate nor practical, so I am not suggesting you would ask for references for your proposed therapist. But you are allowed to interview them.

Bear in mind, too, that there are several types of therapy; and what works for someone else may not work for you. Or it may not work for you now, but be precisely what you need in a year or two. CBT, DBT, Mindfulness, Jungian, Solution-focused, EMDR and all others are merely tools that are designed to help people manage their current circumstances. Pharmaceuticals can often help, too, depending on your difficulties, needs, wants, expectations and limitations. But they are only tools, and one size does not fit all. The wrong therapeutic approach, at the wrong time – or the right therapeutic approach at the wrong time – can do more harm than good. And you deserve good. You deserve the best. The first thing you have to do is ask for it, though. Ask for the help you need. You deserve it.

 

 

Gas Lighting

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Gaslighting is a term that comes from the name of the film, Gaslight. In it, a man tries to convince his young wife that she is going insane by twisting her words, convincing that things she is sure are happening, aren’t and that her version of events are flawed. The term ‘gaslighting’ is used to describe psychological abuse that attempts to destroy the victims’ trust in their perceptions of reality. People who distrust their perceptions are easier to manipulate and control.

Gaslighting is something that often happens to people who are sexually assaulted over a period of time. If you think about it, abusers will rarely declare ‘I am going to abuse you now’ or ‘come here ’till I use you for my own sexual gratification and to feel powerful’. No. They are more likely to tell you that this is what love looks and feels like, that they are touching you in this way because you are ‘special’ or they might say ‘stop crying, it doesn’t hurt.’

Gaslighting is sometimes part of the grooming process; and, because victims of sexual abuse are prone to re-victimisation, we are prone to being gaslight in other relationships as well. Gaslighting can be linked to the lack of awareness of/trust in your instinct that I referred to last week, in the first of these AtoZ blogs. Below, I have listed my ‘Five Cs’ of gaslighting. If you find that these apply to a relationship you’re in, it would be worth mentioning it do your therapist.

  • Confusion. You feel confused and off-balance when you interact with someone. You receive puzzling responses to ordinary actions, and your reactions are labelled wrong or unreasonable.
  • Concerns about mental stability. You worry that you are going crazy. Someone repeatedly expresses concern that you’ll have a nervous breakdown.
  • Conflict about memory. You hear, “I never said that,” when you clearly remember hearing it. You frequently hear, “You’re imagining things,” or “You remember that wrong.” Memory differences can be expressed respectfully by saying, “I don’t remember saying that,” or “I don’t remember it that way.”
  • Confounded emotions. When you think about your situation, or recent conversations you have had with the person in question, you feel muddled. The facts do not add up; but you see that as a flaw in yourself, rather than in the situation or the other person.
  • Cross-examining your own perceptions. You ask others to confirm what you notice. When someone disagrees with you, you immediately assume you were wrong. Ask yourself if you remember a time when you did trust your own perceptions. If so, when did that change? If it is linked to the beginning of the relationship in question, it’s probably time to leave that relationship.

Gaslighting is a particularly insidious way of damaging someone’s psychological perception of themselves and their situation. I know I’m repeating myself, but if you the ‘Five Cs’ match characteristics of a relationship you’re in, it’s time to think about leaving that relationship. If you recognise the signs from a previous abusive situation, then I hope this will help put it into perspective for you.

 

Forgiveness

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Forgiveness is something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to lately. When I say ‘lately’, I mean the past eighteen months or so. I’ve been examining it from philosophical, emotional and psychological points of view with my eye on publishing a long piece in the near future.

I’m including a short piece on forgiveness in this A to Z Challenge because I have heard and read on many occasions, that forgiveness is crucial for survivors of sexual abuse. We are told that in order to ‘free’ ourselves from the pain of the abuse, we need to forgive those who molested and / or raped us. Forgiveness is sold to us as a A Good Thing. In the accepted rhetoric, forgiveness seems to be something that is as good – if not better – for the forgiver as for the forgivee.

The way forgiveness is generally talked about, it appears as if forgiving confers on the forgiver a deed to a piece of land high up on the moral ground. Forgivers are seen as morally superior, somehow. ‘Good’ people forgive. ‘Bad’ people don’t. This puts the onus back on the transgressed to do the right thing; to fix the situation. We are urged to ‘let it go’ to ‘move on’, to ‘let bygones be bygones’ to ‘be the bigger person’. We’re told that holding on to the anger just hurts the transgressed – it does nothing to the transgressor.

But is it really better for the person of whom forgiveness is expected to actually give that forgiveness? Is forgiveness the same as saying that whatever happened doesn’t matter? Or that it doesn’t matter any more? Can you really be expected to forgive someone who shows no remorse?

I don’t think that you have to ‘forgive’ the person who hurt you, you don’t owe them anything. You do, however, owe yourself your best life. What we,  as people who have managed to survive abuse, are looking for is peace – peace inside ourselves so that we can move on and move forward and live our best lives.

Forgiving the people who damaged us in unimaginable ways doesn’t have to be part of that. Choosing not to forgive does not mean that you are wallowing in hate. Choosing not to forgive doesn’t automatically turn the person who has been hurt into a bitter, twisted individual.  Choosing not to forgive may, in fact, be a hugely empowering stance. It may feel like one of the few choices you actively had in your your relationship with the person who abused you.

 

 

Erroneous Beliefs About Survivors of CSA

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There are a number of erroneous beliefs – otherwise known as myths – with regard to survivors of child sexual abuse. I’m going to take a look at a handful of them here.

Myth: Male victims of abuse will ‘grow up’ to become abusers themselves.

Unfortunately, this myth is so widespread that men who are abused worry they will, in turn, abuse children. Just like everyone else, however, abused people know right from wrong, and we are aware of the concept of personal responsibility. If someone who was abused chooses to abuse another person, in the full knowledge that what they are doing is wrong – that is their choice, their decision, and they must be held responsible for it.

Myth: Boys are rarely abused unless they are ‘weak’ or ‘effeminate’.

This is another harmful myth, and it can serve to gag boys who don’t want to disclose their abuse for fear of being thought of as ‘less than’ real men. While it is true that more girls are sexually abused than boys, the fact that they were abused does not reflect badly on them. Abuse only reflects badly on the abuser and those who stood by and did nothing to stop the abuse from happening.

Myth: People claim to have been sexually abused because they are looking for attention and want pity. 

Fewer than 2% of people of people who claim to have been sexually abused were not. It is far more likely that people who were abused deny, or never disclose the fact. Many (most?) victims of sexual abuse minimise the effects of the abuse on them.

Myth: Children are resilient and if people remember childhood abuse, they will get over it quickly. 

All people – not just children – are resilient, but this should not be used as an excuse to harm children. The truth is that the damage done by childhood sexual abuse cannot be undone. Victims can be helped, they can be taught coping strategies, they can learn that the abuse was not their fault, but there is little to suggest that they ever completely ‘get over’ what happened. Much less that they do so quickly.

Myth: If there is no violence involved, then it’s not really abuse.

All abuse is violent. Just because there are no bruises or tears on the skin does not mean that abuse has not taken place. The most painful of bruises are the invisible ones. Abuse takes place when informed consent is not given. Abuse occurs when an older person asserts power over a child. Abuse occurs when a child is treated as an object, rather than a person deserving of respect.

 

Damage

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The damage that is done to individuals who are sexually assaulted cannot be underestimated. There are a number of variables, and some people will find that they are affected in certain ways and not in others. No one, however, is only ‘mildly’ affected by sexual assault. There is research to suggest that the longer the abuse goes on for, the more the person will be affected; that intra-familial abuse (abuse by a member of the abused person’s family), and child sexual abuse affect a person to a greater degree than ‘just’ a one-off assault or an assault that takes place when a person is an adult.

It has been suggested that this is because an adult already has a sense of self; they already know themselves as a valuable person and a person of worth. They know to be outraged at the gross violation they have been subjected to. They know they did nothing wrong (even though we live in a society that loves to victim-blame and tell victims they are the root cause of their own victimisation).

What all victims and survivors of sexual assault have in common, however, is an attack on their sense of being safe. We all suffer, to a greater or lesser degree, from PTSD. Some of us suffer poor self-image, low self-esteem, and a myriad mental, psychological and emotional difficulties. We’re at a greater risk of self-harm, too. My own breasts are still scarred from attempts to try to hack them off when I was a teenager; sure that being born female was the root of all my problems and that if I could perform a double mastectomy on myself with a carving knife, men would stop sexually assaulting me.

There is often physical damage, too. Apart altogether from the immediate and obvious damage done to abused flesh, and the damage done by self-harming, girls who are abused often find (like I did) that there is damage done to their reproductive organs, which impacts on their ability to have children of their own.

Forming and keeping intimate relationships is an area fraught with difficulty for those of us who were abused. Particularly if the abuse started in childhood – because we are primed to almost expect to be abused. I wrote a bit about that in my book, Gullible Travels: 

‘My family spent years and years teaching me that I was less than nothing – I was useless, worthless, good-for-nothing, lazy, ugly, stupid, fat, ridiculous, disgusting, full of notions, a waste of space. Touch was abuse. My family spent my entire childhood teaching me to hate myself. I was a model student.

As an abused child, I had a job. My job was to save myself. By saving myself, I don’t mean stopping the abuse – I just mean getting through it alive. My job was to get out of there in one piece – physically at least. My job was to stay alive. When that is your job description, knowing what’s expected of you is not difficult: You do what the person in charge tells you to do. You stop questioning. You stop listening to your own instinct because to do so could be detrimental to your health. Then, you stop recognising your own instinct. That’s when you really get in to trouble. Your instinct is there to protect you – to stop you from doing dangerous things. If you can’t even recognise your instinct in order to pay attention to it, you are in real trouble.

Your brain takes sides against itself and against you. One half tries to understand how the people upon whom you depend for everything are untrustworthy. You cannot trust the only people in the world that you are supposed to trust. But you have to. Otherwise, what will happen to you? Where will you live? What will you eat? If you run away (which you try, unsuccessfully, to do) what will happen to you then? Will you run away to something that is worse than what you’re running from? You don’t know – so you stop fighting.

The other half of your brain decides it’s better to stop trying to figure out what’s going on. Autopilot is a better option, this half thinks. It thinks that is the way to get you through safely; stop asking questions, stop fighting. Take a deep breath. And hold it. Both sides of your brain just want to get you through the horror safely. Their definitions of ‘safe’ don’t match. But if you get through this alive, you can sort that out later. Or try to. Or you can avoid it. If you get through this alive, you will have choices. If you get through this alive, you can address all the horror later. Or not.’

Of course, a huge problem with not hearing your instinct as a child is that you continue to be unable to hear it as an adult. This, then, leads to the phenomenon of revictimisation; where people who were sexually abused as children or teenagers are vulnerable to further abuse when they are adults. This, then, compounds the damage already done to them.

The damage that sexual abuse does to the victim and their family is all too often underestimated. It is long-lasting and far-reaching, a fact that is often over-looked by people who haven’t lived through abuse.

It make me marvel, as a woman living in Ireland, how Irish people bang on about the famine and post-colonialism and the damage it has done, and continues to do Irish people and the Irish psyche. This year, the Rising of 1916 is being commemorated and there is much discussion about the effect it has had on the Irish and the Irish psyche. Yet, there isn’t a single person alive who remembers either the famine or the 1916 Rising and it’s accepted as legitimate to discuss at length how they have effected Irish people; while people who were sexually abused during their own lifetimes and are profoundly effected by it, are told to be quiet and ‘get over it’. Which, of course, just adds to the damage.

Causes

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There is just one cause for sexual assault: Sexual assailants. The person who is assaulted is never to blame. Never. Unfortunately, people are quick to victim blame, even when the victim is a child (like I was when I was first abused as a two year old).  These people, who make excuses for sexual assailants, rapists and paedophiles, seem to think that somehow, something a victim does excuses the rapist from their actions. That simply isn’t true. A victim never causes an abuser to abuse them. (Closely linked to the issue of cause and responsibility is the issue of consent, which I wrote about a few months ago. You can read that post here.)

No matter what – no matter what a person is wearing; what they have been drinking; who paid for their drinks or their dinner; where they live; what they do for a living; if the abuser feels they have been ‘led on’; if the abuser has had consensual sex with their victim on another occasion; if the abuser is a family member – the cause of sexual abuse is abusers.  Always.

There are no mitigating factors. There is no grey area. There is no question of a victim bringing it on themselves. There is no question of a victim causing their own victimisation. There is one cause and one cause only for the rape and sexual assault of women, children and men – and that cause is the rapists and sex offenders.

Different rapists may use different excuses – they were angry, upset, needed to feel powerful, needed sexual gratification, found their victim too attractive to resist – but that does not detract from the fact that they are the ones who caused the rape.

I know I’ve done little else in this post but repeat myself – and there’s a good reason for that: We still live in a society where people who are sexually assaulted are blamed for that assault, and are seen as causing the assault. This is never the case. We are never to blame for the assaults perpetrated on our bodies. The hatred men have for themselves is waged in a war on women’s bodies and women’s minds. The cause of this war is the men who wage it. not the women on whom it is waged.

The A to Z April Challenge

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Over on my other blog (hazelkatherinelarkin), I’ve joined in on the A to Z Blogging Challenge. The idea is to take a theme and blog it through the month of April, working your way through the alphabet while you’re at it.

 

Given that it’s also Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I’ve decided to marry the two and will be blogging an A to Z of sexual assault for the month of April.

 

If you’re interested, you can find the first post here:  http://wp.me/s6sNwP-abuse

Believing the Victim

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One of the hardest things a victim has to do is disclose their abuse for the first time. I’m not saying it gets easier with every telling; but some people can be easier to tell than others. It can be easier, for example, to tell your doctor – in a matter-of-fact, clinical way that you have been abused – than it is to tell a new romantic interest before you get intimate with them. (In my experience, it’s better to tell them before rather than after, but more on that later.)

As a society, the first thing we need to do us understand that we have to believe the victim. Victims and survivors need to know that they will be believed or they will not disclose. That matters, hugely, not just for the possibility of their own recovery and healing, but in order to instigate action against the person who raped or abused them, and prevent it happening to someone else. Because, here’s the thing; sexual predators do not stop abusing because they wake up some day with a eureka moment, and think ‘oh that’s not a very nice thing to do, I’ll stop now’. If a behaviour is serving someone well, they have no reason to change that behaviour. So, if a sexual predator is not stopped from abusing, they will continue to do so. They will just become more devious, more adept at finding people to groom, more sneaky about the ways they use to find and silence their victims.

This is evident from the number of high-profile sex-offenders who abused many children over many years. They were not stopped because their victims didn’t disclose for fear of what would happen to them afterwards, and for fear of not being believed. In fact, many of the women who were raped by Bill Cosby were not initially believed when they came forward.

Of course, we’ve all heard that people make up false allegations about abuse and rape in order to exact revenge on a man who has upset them. This tiresome trope is all the more tiresome because false allegations make up fewer than 1.5% of rape claims that were prosecuted in the UK.  Given that, I would suggest that anyone who makes allegations of rape or sexual assault be believed until it is reasonable to think that their allegations are false.

In my case, I was ‘lucky’ in that I was always believed.   Along my journey, I have always been believed by doctors, nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists, police, judges – anyone who mattered, really, found no reason not to believe me. In fact, most went out of their way to reassure me, and emphatically declared that they did not doubt me. This was probably aided by the fact that those who perpetrated the abuse never denied it. (More about that later).

I cannot imagine how difficult it would be for anyone to have to go through being assaulted and then not believed. It’s hard enough to muster the strength to report a rape or an assault in the first place – whether that reporting is official (to the police or a healthcare professional for example) or unofficial (to a friend, partner, parent etc.) – without having to go to extreme lengths to ‘prove’ that an assault has taken place.

Contributing to the culture of disbelief is a misinformed notion of what a victim ‘should’ look like, or how a victim ‘should’ behave. If a victim presents in ways that go against these ideas – which are often promulgated by media in various forms and guises – s/he has a more difficult time being believed.

Rape and sexual assault have devastating effects on those who are hurt. They damage in ways that are seen and unseen. They take so much from the victim that cannot be replaced. The very least victims deserve is to be heard and believed.

Abuse

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I wasn’t planning on doing this April A to Z thing – but here I am, literally at the eleventh hour (it’s just 2300h here in Ireland), but I have a thing about synchronicity and when two of my friends on Twitter tweeted in quick succession about having taken up the mantle, I thought about it.

Then, I dismissed the notion. I’m busy. (Everyone’s busy – that’s no excuse and I know it).  A few hours later, however, I realised that April is Sexual Abuse Awareness and Prevention Month. I thought I might like to blog about that. Then, my friend Barbara Bos suggested the challenge on a page for writers that she manages. About two seconds after I posted a reply saying, basically ‘Great idea, I’ll think about it’, the two thoughts collided in my brain and I realised that this blog challenge is a great platform with which to raise awareness of sexual abuse. After all, it is a key theme in my book and much of my academic research.

So, here I am. Committing to twenty six posts this month, on this blog, on the subject of sexual abuse and working my way through the English alphabet as I do so. Wish me luck!

Sexual abuse can happen to anyone – male or female, young or old, able-bodied or otherwise. Likewise, sexual assault can be perpetrated by anyone; male or female (though in over 90% of cases, the perpetrator is male), young or old, able-bodied or otherwise, stranger, friend or family member. Any sexual act which takes place without consent is assault. It is never the fault of the victim and a person who is asleep, drunk, drugged or too terrified to speak cannot give consent, so any act perpetrated on their person is assault.

Rape, assault and abuse are in and of themselves acts of violence. Though the criminal may use other types of physical violence, it is not at all unusual for them to ‘just’ use threats and coercion. Indeed, when a person is the victim of repeated assaults from the same person, and has been groomed by them, additional violence is rarely needed to subdue the victim.

Abuse has a profound, long-term and detrimental effect on the victim.  It takes so much from the person who is abused: Those of us who survive are aware that something precious – something that can never be given back – has been taken from us.

If you have been a victim of rape, sexual assault or sexual abuse, or if you are supporting someone who has, please contact your nearest rape crisis centre. If you are feeling anxious, depressed or suicidal as a result of sexual trauma, please contact your nearest rape crisis centre or your nearest branch of the Samaritans. 

Have We Lived Up To The Ideals of the Proclamation?

Easter 1916 saw the most famous of the rebellious risings against the British in our history. It has been revised and re-positioned several times in my life-time, never mind in the hundred years since the thing happened. But, I just can’t muster up any enthusiasm about the celebrations, or commemorations or whatever you want to call them. I think we’ve failed. We’ve failed the ideals expressed by the leaders of the Rising, as outlined in the proclamation. Taking a look at some of those ideals, (and ignoring all references to God), I have a few thoughts:

We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible.

Tell that to the 5,000 homeless children, women and men on the streets of Ireland. Tell that to the people whose government sold her rights to the gas that lies off her shores, who considered selling off the woodlands. Tell that to the people who have been brought to their knees, or emigrated, or killed themselves due to the financial pressures brought about by the Irish government’s decision to bail out the bondholders.

The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people.

I’d say there are plenty of Irish people feeling destroyed on a daily basis – and a right is not much use if you don’t get the opportunity to exercise it.

The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally…

What use is religious liberty if your children are refused access to an education on the grounds that they are of the ‘wrong’ (ie not Roman Catholic) religion – or practice none at all? As far as civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities being secured, well – tell that to the women who are unable to access legal abortions in Ireland. Tell that to the widowers and motherless children of women who have died because they couldn’t get access to abortions. Tell that to women whose pelvises were sawn in half and who are still waiting for justice. Tell that to the children who were incarcerated and abused in industrial schools. Tell that to the women and children who were incarcerated in laundries up and down this country. Tell that to the children who have been born into and continue to live in direct provision. Tell that to the women who were fecked out of their jobs as soon as they got married – until 1973 it was illegal for a woman to keep her job in a bank or the civil service (unless she was a nurse or a teacher).  Tell that to the women of Ireland who are still treated as second class citizens – who are not allowed autonomy over their own bodies.

As far as cherishing all of the children of the nation equally – I could be here all day commenting on that one. Children are not cherished by this nation. Grace and Karen tell us that. Children with disabilities tell us that. Children who have any type of special need tell us that.

For all these reasons and more, I don’t think that we are in any position to celebrate anything. I’m disgusted that over €50m has been earmarked for the 1916 commemorations. How many families would that have housed? How many procedures for people on our long waiting lists would that have paid for? How many children in desperate situations would that have saved? How many special needs assistants’ salaries would that have paid?

I struggle to find a reason to be proud of Ireland. I am proud of certain individual Irish people; but more and more I am frustrated by the attitude of Ireland to her children, to their pasts, to their present moments, and to their futures.

Connolly

 

Many Voices

Last month, I was delighted when Barbara Bos, asked me to write a few words for the website ‘Women Writers, Women’s Books‘.

I wrote about how I change ‘voices’ depending on what type of writing I’m doing. You can read that piece here:

Many Voices

I’ve published one book – but written 50!

In November, I published the first volume of my memoirs. Called ‘Gullible Travels’, it is – by the very fact of being a memoir! – a hugely personal tale about the ten years I spent in Asia, married to the wrong men and desperate to become a mother.

Keen to avoid being labelled a ‘misery lit’ writer, I wove the back story of the sexual abuse I lived through into the book, rather than making it the focus. I thought that would make the subject easier for people to read and – crucially – I used a different font for the descriptions of abuse, so that people who didn’t want to read those parts could just skip over them.

A therapist who heard me speak at a conference on trauma a year and a half ago got in touch to say that, having read the book, she was recommending it to some of her clients, in an attempt to help them make sense of their own behaviour.

A woman in her early thirties emailed to let me know that she’d sat up until 2am to finish the book (on a school night!). For her, I’d written a book about maternal love. Another woman emailed to let me know that she had spent four years in therapy after her husband left her; and one line in Gullible Travels made more sense to her regarding her situation than all the things her therapist had said in that time. One reader emailed me from Australia to let me know that she was applauding me – she felt Gullible Travels was a testament to the strength of the human spirit. Many women have been in touch to disclose their own abuse, and to express the feeling that, finally, someone understands.

It’s not just women who are reading my book, of course. Men are contacting me to let me know that Gullible Travels has had an effect on them, too.  Some are shocked at the behaviour of other men – and write, telling me of their resolve to be even more mindful of how they speak to, and treat, women. Others are relieved that they never treated a woman as badly as I have been treated by members of the opposite sex. One man wrote to thank me for helping him to understand a former girlfriend who had been sexually abused. He was planning on getting in touch with her – armed with this new understanding – to see if they could give it another go.

Every few days, I get a message via email or social media from a reader to let me know that they have read my book and how it has impacted them. Never having written a memoir before, I am astonished by how people are reacting to it. I thought I’d written one book, but it seems I’ve written several.

Expansion

Expansion

I gave up making New Year’s Resolutions many moons ago. For so many people, they are just sticks to beat themselves with. They are something else to fail at. So many people make resolutions before they are ready to keep them – otherwise, they’d have made them before the new year. Anyway, who says that we can only make changes to our lives at the beginning of the year? That seems a bit restrictive to me.

This year, instead of a ‘resolution’ (or a list of them!), I have a word. Just a single word that I will use to guide me throughout the year. That word is ‘Expansion’. Even thinking it makes me smile, it makes me breathe deeper, it fills me with excitement.

Expansion is, perhaps, the first cousin of Abundance, but this year, it was expansion that demanded my attention as a theme for 2016. Choosing a word as a theme feels like a much gentler thing to do with, and for, and to, myself than giving myself a list of ‘resolutions’.

Expansion is going to be fun; it will probably throw a few challenges at me, but that’s okay – I enjoy a challenge. Expansion is a good, inclusive, word. The more I expand, the more I have space for: More space for more relationships; more space for nurturing the relationships I already hold dear; more space for more learning; more space for more ideas; more space for more books (!); more space for more thinking; more space for more loving; more space for more action.

If you were to choose a word to guide your year, what would it be?

Ten Things Writing a Memoir Taught Me About Writing A Memoir.

As you know, I published my memoir, Gullible Travels, in November. This book is my first memoir, but not my first published work by a long shot. Memoir writing, however, is very different to the other types of writing – academic writing, screenwriting, playwriting, and writing for a variety of magazines from financial to parenting – that I had previously done.

So, while writing Gullible Travels, I learnt a few things about writing in this genre, which I am delighted to share with you here:

Do your therapy first!

I have very strong feelings on this one – it’s a complete non-negotiable, as far as I’m concerned. If you are going to write about something that’s upsetting or difficult, don’t use writing your memoir as therapy. Do your therapy first, work through your stuff, and then write your book. Your reader’s job is not to work through your shit for you. That’s your job, and yours alone.

Sure, writing is therapeutic, keeping a journal is good for all of us, but do that work first, before you write you book. The way you write for yourself and the way you write for an audience are (should be!) very different.

You don’t have to begin at the beginning.

Years ago, I read that the difference between an autobiography and a memoir is that the former covers your entire life – from when you were born until the time the book is written. A memoir, on the other hand, covers a specific time or event; whether that’s a decade or two in your life, your recovery from an illness, or your year travelling through Africa on a goat.

When you have decided which part of your life story it is you want to tell, bear in mind that you don’t have to start at the beginning. Drop in in the middle of your anecdote, if that makes more sense, or is a more interesting point to start. Hit the ground running, and take your readers with you.

You can be honest without being cruel. 

One of the women who made more than a brief appearance in my book was a champion farter. It didn’t matter where she was – her home, your home, a friend’s home, a restaurant, a five-star hotel, or the bus – she would happily, blissfully trumpet away without as much as a ‘Pardon me’ the entire time I knew her!

Of course, I could have included this piece of information – but to what end? (oops!). It would just embarrass her, and it wouldn’t necessarily add anything to the narrative. Even though it’s completely true, I had already given plenty of indication of how difficult our relationship was – so this piece of information wouldn’t have shed any new light on the situation.

Not every anecdote needs to be included. 

I have quite a few funny stories that didn’t make it in to Gullible Travels, but they don’t need to be included in the book.

Doubtless, you have a sackful of those kind of anecdotes as well – interesting, amusing things that have happened to you along the way. Don’t put yourself under pressure to include them; you’re not concealing material facts by doing so. Keep them for your book launch, for interviews, and for when you’re speaking at events. Or even just for sharing with people over lunch, or at parties.

Two can become one without it becoming a ‘lie’ or a fiction.

There may well be certain people who need to feature in your memoir that you don’t want to identify, but who are necessary to the narrative. Beyond changing their names, you can change the sex of a person and their relationship to you. For example, your raging alcoholic Aunt Bertha can be transformed into your raging alcoholic Uncle Benny (who also happens to be a priest). Or you can turn two of your boyfriends from when you were 16/17 into one boy.

In Gullible Travels, for example, ‘The Horrible Boy’ is actually three people amalgamated into one. While all the events attributed to ‘The Horrible Boy’ took place, the abuse by one was very similar to the abuse by another, so it would have added nothing to the narrative to have separated them out – in fact, it may well have confused the reader trying to keep so many abusers straight in their heads. Having just one identity also supported the repetitive nature of the abuse, and the dissociation that is mentioned in the book.

Writing in dialect can be a distraction.

If someone in your life/book speaks in a particular dialect, or with a specific accent, it’s probably best not to try to reproduce it on the page. As well as being a distraction to the eye, it may not be ‘heard’ in the reader’s ‘mind’s ear’ the way you hear it in your memory. The best thing to do, really, is to write the words that the person meant, fully and completely.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that writing in a dialect or reproducing an accent on the page can also present problems for your translators further down the road.

When recounting dialogue, the rules of fiction apply.

When I started writing my memoir, I thought I needed to be completely faithful, in my recounting of conversations, to what was actually said. Halfway through the first draft, however, I realised that wasn’t useful. Just as when I was writing for stage and screen, I needed to keep dialogue to the essence of what was said: The meaning needed to be conveyed to retain the truth of whatever conversation I was recounting, but every word did not have to be set down on the page. Actual speech can be very repetitive, full of half-finished sentences, thoughts that aren’t completed, and meanderings that aren’t necessary to the story you’re telling.

Sometimes, the conversation itself doesn’t even need to be recounted at all. You can simply say ‘We shouted at each other for two and a half hours without resolving anything’. Or ‘By the end of the discussion – which we returned to on a daily basis for a week – we decided boarding school was the best option.’

Even though it’s a memoir, your job is still to entertain your reader. 

Your memoir might be dealing with the darkest, bleakest of human experiences, but it can still be entertaining. My book, for example, is about being sexually abused (by several people) as a child; re-victimisation; abusive marriages; miscarriages, and lots of other un-funny subjects. Even with those subjects as the material for the book, the one thing I repeatedly hear from people who read Gullible Travels is that they can’t put it down. Some people even tell me that they laugh when they’re reading it. Good! I’m delighted.

I want to entertain the people who are giving their time to me and my book. That, I believe, is the contract between writer and reader; they read your work with the expectation that they will enjoy it, and you must do your best to render unto them something that will amuse them.

Be clear about your motivation. 

One question you need to ask yourself is why you want to write your memoir.  It doesn’t have to be something deep and profound – having a cracking great story you want to tell is reason enough.

I wrote Gullible Travels because someone else told me that – in spite of it being my story – it wasn’t about me. The point of writing that book, I was told, was (among other things) so that other women could identify and remove themselves from abusive relationships; so people who haven’t been abused could better understand how it affects those of us who have been, and so people who have been abused would realise they are not alone.

Of course, you don’t have to write for publication. I know quite a few people who have written memoirs in order to preserve their memories for future generations of their families. These books are prized possessions by those who are entrusted with them.

A word of caution, however; a desire for revenge is not a good motivator. If that’s why you write your memoir, then you can be sure that your writing will appear bitter, mean-spirited, and will make for squirmy reading.

Remember, it’s your memoir.

The book you’re writing is your memoir. It is your story. It is yours to tell the way you want to tell it. You are under no obligation to explain, excuse, interpret or analyse anyone else’s behaviour.  Write your own story, write it in your own voice, and write it with all the integrity you can muster.

Dear Men Who Date Online…

It’s no secret that I have been an online dater a few times in the past twelve years of my singledom. A few years ago, I had a regular feature on the radio where I shared my experiences of looking for a fella in Ireland as an intelligent, divorced, mother of two in her thirties.

In the interests of research and radio, I flirted (see what I did there?!) with a variety of different ways to meet men on the island of Ireland. I went to a few matchmakers; I asked friends to look through their husbands’ address books for eligible unattacheds; I went speed-dating; on blind dates; dinner events for singles; wine-tastings and other ‘events’. I even went to the pub on my own to see if I’d meet anyone there (I didn’t). And, of course, I tried online dating.

I tried a few sites – from those that promised to be a cut above the rest (and charged accordingly), to those that made no claims at all (and were free), and everything in between.

Along the way, I have read the online profiles of thousands of men. So my New Year’s gift to every man over the age of 35 who is looking for more than just a shag (though there’s nothing wrong with that) I offer you my observations in a handy list.

When creating your online profile, I respectfully suggest that you:

  1. Wait at least a year between leaving one serious relationship and looking for another. Trust me on this one. You are just not ready. By all means go out, date, meet your friends, go to gigs, accept invitations, do whatever it is you fancy – but don’t start looking for another serious relationship. Spend time getting to know yourself again – who you are as a single person – before looking for someone else to get to know you.
  2. Put some thought into what you write about yourself. If you want a woman to engage with you, show her you are worth engaging with. ‘I’ll come back to this later’ or ‘I don’t know what to say here’ or ‘Jaysus this is hard. I’ll have a pint while I think about it’ isn’t endearing. If you want a woman to think you’re worth her time, show her you think you’re worth your time.
  3. Don’t slag off your ex. This shouldn’t even need to be said, but it’s not funny (even if you mean it to be funny rather than offensive). Women need to see that you can treat women with respect – how you treat/speak about your ex tells us a lot about you. Also, it can make a woman who is interested in you worry about what you’ll slag her off over if things don’t work out between you.
  4. Don’t tell us what your friends say about you. If we wanted to know, we’d ask them. Show us you have some degree of reflexivity and self-knowledge by telling us what you think about yourself. Tell us what you like about yourself, one or two of your endearing habits and the things you love to do in your spare time.
  5. Don’t lie. If we like you, we will take notice of what you say, and if you’ve lied in your profile, we will catch you out in that lie and – because we have self-respect and don’t like being lied to – never see you again.
  6. Be open. Even if you think you have a type, be open to dating women who are different to the kind of women you’d usually go for. Maybe you thought you’d never date a woman who wasn’t blonde, or hated football, or had kids; but if you suspend your expectations and convictions, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised.
  7. Post your second-best photo of yourself. This might seem counter-intuitive, but the reason is simple: If a woman sees a photo of you that isn’t you at your best, and still wants to meet you, chances are she’s interested in more than your looks. When she sees you in the flesh, she will be pleasantly surprised. Which is a whole lot nicer than the other kind of surprised.
  8. Post pictures of yourself and yourself alone. We don’t want to see pictures of you with other women (that includes your mum), with children, or with all your buddies. We don’t want to date any of those people – we want to date you. By all means, show us photographs of your kids/siblings’ kids when we’re on our second or third date, but not in your profile picture.
  9. Post pictures of you without your car/helicopter/jet in the background/foreground. Do you really want to go out with a woman who is only interested in what you drive? Wouldn’t you rather go out with a woman who is more interested in what drives you?
  10. Write your profile stone cold sober and have a straight female friend read over it before you put it online. Like most people, you’re not as funny drunk as you think you are. A straight female friend will read your profile from a straight woman’s perspective (naturally) and give you honest feedback. If you’re really lucky, she’ll catch your typographical errors as well.

 

Wishing you the best of luck in your online search for Ms Right in 2016!

Consent

Listening to Louise O’Neill chatting with Seán Moncrieff today had me thinking about consent again. Particularly and specifically consent in the context of sexual relations. Now, when I say ‘sexual relations’ I don’t just mean penetrative sexual intercourse. I mean everything up to, and including, penetrative sexual intercourse; and, yes, that includes snogging.

 

It really isn’t okay to lunge at someone and ‘lob the gob’ (as the young people say), stick your tongue in their mouth and swish it around a bit. Uninvited, unwelcome, that’s assault.

 

I remember the first time someone asked me if they could kiss me; it really surprised me, and I thought it was a bit quaint and slightly old-fashioned. Afterwards, though, I realised that it was probably the most respectful thing a man could do before kissing a woman. Now, I expect it. I don’t know if consent is such a huge issue for me because – for most of my life – who touched me, and when, was not something I had any control over; or if it’s simply because it’s a respectful way of going about things.

In discussions about consent, I have heard people dismiss the obtaining of it as ‘not sexy’.  Personally, I find it really sexy. I find it very sexy when a man doesn’t assume that I’m there to be touched as, and when, and where, he feels like it. I find it quite sexy that he considers me important enough in the proceedings to find out before touching me that it really is something I want.  And, let’s face it, if I’m in a position (no pun intended!) where a man is asking consent, chances are it will be granted. There again, it might not be – I might say ‘no’, or ‘not yet’ or ‘wait’ but at least I have been consulted about what happens to my body. The effect that has on me is intoxicating. Knowing that nothing will happen to me until I have granted permission for it to happen also means that I relax and am much more in the moment – and much more open to enjoying it – than I would be otherwise. I’m not tensely on guard, aware that the moment might well arise where I have to fight someone off.

Also, it’s so much nicer to be asked for permission than to be in the situation where you have to stay ‘stop!’ or ‘don’t’ or push someone away. Particularly for those of us who have been sexually abused, and where having things done to us without warning, and without consent is triggering. It can be very difficult to stop someone who starts to do something unwelcome when your historical experience is that your pleas will either be ignored, or met with more force. In those instances, we’re less likely to feel as though we’re active participants in a pleasurable exercise than we are to feel that we’re objects being subjected to activity. This can result in ‘stop’ being screamed in our heads, but never making it past being more than a lump in our throats. It can also result in dissociation, meaning we’re no longer even in the room – which is a bit sad when you fancy someone and have been looking forward to a good spit-swapping session (or more).

The last time I snogged someone, I tried to discuss how I felt about consent. I explained that, if his hand was to end up anywhere between my neck and knee, I either wanted to be the one who put it there, or to be asked first if it was okay. He was surprised.

‘I’d hate you to be uncomfortable,’ he explained. I knew this already. The reason we were kissing in the first place was that I’d decided he was one of life’s nice guys, and that I was probably as safe with him as I could reasonably expect to be with any man. ‘But I’m kissing you. And when I’m kissing you, it feels natural to want to touch you, and to want to run my hands over your body. If I do something you don’t like – then tell me to stop and I will.’

I have no doubt he would have stopped if I’d asked him to, but – really – that’s too late. You’ve already done something to me that I don’t want you to, you’ve already breached my trust, you’ve already made me anxious. Also, as I explained earlier, for those of us with a history of sexual abuse, saying ‘stop’ can be difficult.

At the other end of the spectrum, I renewed an acquaintance with a very lovely man about six months ago. We hadn’t met since 1999 (we live thousands of kilometres away from each other) – and the last time we’d seen each other, we’d been kissing. I was hoping we’d pick up where we’d left off. We did.

In and of itself, that was lovely; but what was lovelier was the fact that he did nothing without making absolutely sure first that it was something I wanted. It started with him telling me – when we were arranging to meet – that he wanted to kiss me, and asking if that would be okay; to asking permission to hold my hand when we were out walking, to checking with me, when we alone and getting cosy, that his intentions were acceptable before acting on them.

After about a week of this wonderfulness, I asked him about it.

‘Consent is really important to me,’ I told him. ‘But why is it important to you? Why are you so aware of it? Why do you always ask me before you touch me?’

‘Because I was raised to have respect for women – and I respect you,’ came the response. ‘And I can’t just presume that because I want something, that you want the same thing at the same time. I would hate to hurt you or upset you, so I need to be sure before I do something that I am allowed to do it, and that it’s something you want as much as I do.’

Still intrigued, I asked a bit more. It turns out that he was raised to treat women with respect not because we’re weak and need ‘minding’ but because we’re strong and formidable. As such, we need to be treated with due consideration, and as equals.

Of course, consent is a two-way street, and I would never dream of touching a man without his permission. I often find, however, that my requests are met with puzzlement, amusement and / or surprise. On more than one occasion, requests for consent have been answered with

‘Just do what you want with me!’

Once I’ve explained that I’m uncomfortable with that, and why, they have come around to my way of thinking; and enjoyed being asked as much as they have enjoyed the acts they have given consent for.

Dear Reader

I just had an amazing phone call from a woman who read ‘Gullible Travels’ yesterday in one sitting. She was in tears as she spoke about how it had affected her. *I* was in tears as she told me how it had affected her.

 

Then her partner got on the phone and told me that *he* bought the book, but she took it and read it first. He won’t get a chance to start reading it until today, but he’s looking forward.
‘Write another one, Hazel!’ he said. ‘There was no talking yesterday, there was no television, it was great! She was just reading all day until after midnight.’
‘I was more affected by your book than I was by his,’ my reader chimed in, from the background.

 

*That* left me speechless, because this is his book:Bigger Belsen

Emotions

Facial Emotions

In recent weeks, I have fallen in love with the Irish Times Women’s podcasts. These invariably feature interesting women who have done (are doing) interesting things, and who have interesting things to talk about.

Yesterday, I listened to the marvellous Aisling McDermott and the equally wonderful Laura Kennedy. They were interviewed by Marian Keyes, who is one of the funniest writers I have ever come across. I nearly burst my post-surgery stitches I was laughing so much when I read one of her books a few years ago. Anyway, this podcast did provide a few laughs (before I forget, the link is here) but what really grabbed me was the raw honesty with which Aisling spoke about her illness, and Marian’s compassion and kindness in the moment.

At one stage, Aisling’s voice caught on the tears in her throat, and Marian apologised for distressing her. Aisling brushed the apology aside, saying that she wanted to talk, she wanted to share her story, and she wanted to explain what it was like for her to have to deal with a debilitating illness. She was not embarrassed or ashamed or annoyed with herself for crying. And I, in my kitchen, cried too, and applauded Aisling for her pragmatic attitude to the display of emotion.

I have often thought it’s a bit daft that we are embarrassed by crying in public (unless it’s with laughter). We are expected to apologise for, or hide, our tears. Yet we aren’t expected to apologise for, or hide,our frowns, smiles, eye-rolls, gasps, giggles or laughter.

In my family of origin, the manifestation of my emotions – all emotions, but especially sorrow – was ridiculed. I learnt to swallow my laughter because it wasn’t lyrical. I learnt to hide my smile behind my hand because it wasn’t pretty. I learnt to bite the inside of my cheek and tilt my head a certain way so I wouldn’t shed tears. I learnt it was far, far better to cry myself to sleep at night (which I did – every night), than to do so if there was a possibility of an audience.

I decided to stop that nonsense about eighteen months ago. I was addressing the annual conference of Barnardo’s and, in the middle of my piece, I started to cry. Not a full on break-down, not sobs, not snot and shuddering. Just three or four tears and a wobble in my voice that I couldn’t successfully speak through. I decided not to hide it, not to apologise for it, not to fight it, just to go with it. I stood in front of this room full of strangers and said ‘Oh look! An emotion. It will pass.’

And it did. I continued on with my presentation and managed to make people laugh again before I stepped down from the podium.

My point is this – I think we would all be a bit healthier if we allowed our emotions to manifest in safe ways (I don’t mean boxing the heads of people when we’re angry!), acknowledged them, and let them go. And if we learnt how to bear witness, in a supportive way, to others’ tears, too.

Gullible Travels

dfw-hl-gt-cover-ebook

From the Back of the Book:

 

Gullible Travels is a book about a young woman who spent ten years running around Asia getting herself into, and out of, various scrapes; married to the wrong men, and desperate to become a mother.

 

That woman is me.

 

By the time I turned thirty, I’d moved from Ireland to the UK; then to Singapore, Jakarta, India, and back to Singapore. I’d married and left two men, had a seventeen-month-old baby, and another on the way – in circumstances that were far from ideal.

 

My relationships were abusive, my self-esteem was in the gutter (and I couldn’t see the stars!). I struggled to believe that I had the right to exist – let alone thrive – and frequently made poor life choices.  A series of flashbacks woven into the narrative – and populated by The Little Girl, The Bad Man, The Mean Woman, and The Horrible Boy – explain why.

 

Gullible Travels is also, therefore, a book about the long-term and far-reaching consequences of child sexual abuse. This memoir reveals how being sexually abused as a child affected me long into adulthood.

 

World Prematurity Day

Yesterday was World Prematurity Day: A day to celebrate the babies born around the world well in advance of their ‘due’ dates. Technically, that means a baby born before 37 weeks’ gestation. The further out from 37 weeks a baby is, the slimmer their chance of survival.  Things are not as grim for these ‘early-borns’ as they were 20 or even 15 years ago.

My own early born came into this world 10 weeks early, and so many of the stories I read yesterday resonated with me. I’m not, however, going to reproduce a blow-by-blow account of her early hours and days. Instead, I’d like to offer hope to parents struggling with tiny babies. I was told my little girl wouldn’t last the night. I was told my little girl would have severe learning and developmental delays. I was told my little girl would never ‘look right’. I was told my little girl would always be small for her age.

Now, at thirteen and eight months old, Ishthara has defied the odds. She is narrow and fine-boned (like her sister) and she will always be petite. But she’s not tiny. Not any more.

Ishthara is a bright, confident, sweet young lady. She is kind and thoughtful and good to her sister. (She’s good to her mum, as well!). She is responsible and polite and loves her friends. She loves to cook and loves make-up and crime shows on Netflix. She is a normal thirteen year old girl. Because miracles do happen. They happen every day – and they happen every day in the lives of early-born babies and their families.

Girls World Premie Day

My Body, My Rights

Prochoice March

My daughters and I were on the March For Choice in Dublin yesterday. Us, and about 10,000 other people, marching – again – for the right to bodily integrity; the right to make decisions about our own bodies. There is always great camaraderie on these marches, but each of us there hopes we’ll never have to march again. We hope that each time we march, it will be the last.  So far, we have hoped in vain.

Growing up female, in Ireland, I was taught young that my body did not belong to me.

My first memory is of being three years and one month old, and being carried up an old creaking stairs to be sexually abused. I can see myself, in my mind’s eye; small and chubby-cheeked, green eyes that had already seen more than they should have, dark blonde curls bouncing on the journey. And knowing, knowing with all my being, what was coming next. Because this was not the first time this scene had played out. Nor would it be the last. Not by a long, long shot.

I did not own my body as a baby, a toddler, a child, a teenager, or a young adult in Ireland. Now, in my forties, I still don’t own my body. Now, as then, my body is regulated – not by me – but by men who claim to have my best interests at heart. Men who claim to know more about my body and what it ‘should’ be ‘allowed’ to do than I do. Men who claim that they should decide what my body (and mind) must endure.

The priest who told me, when I was a teenager and finally broke my silence, that ‘boys will be boys’. The doctor (a paediatrician, no less) who was more worried about scandal in the village should I get pregnant, than about the scandal that I should even be at risk of getting pregnant. The doctor (a psychiatrist, no less) who told one of my abusers to abuse me with ‘more sensitivity’, more worried about the stigma of a broken family than the damage to my broken mind.

These people still exist. They are still active in my life and those of my young daughters. Oh! Their names and faces have changed, but their attitudes have not. The men (and, to be fair, women) who felt they had the right to decide what happened to my body are still active in Irish society. They are the people who aver that I do not have the right to decide who can touch my body and when – that should I decide I need to be touched by caring professionals in order to end the anguish of an unwanted pregnancy, I am not allowed. They are the people who feel that their wants, wishes, desires, beliefs and mores should be mine.

Make no mistake, this is gendered abuse in the same way as being sexually violated on an almost nightly basis was gendered abuse. The damage that the Eighth Amendment does to women is just as awful, just as gruesome, just as real. The message is the same – you, as a female in Ireland, do not own your body. You never will.

I am pro-choice. Not because I would ever choose to have an abortion (even when – as a young teenager – I thought I was pregnant with a rapist’s baby, did I consider abortion), but because I do not have the right to tell any woman that she does not have that right.

If you need an abortion, I support your right to access a free, safe, legal one. If you need an abortion, I support your right to have that decision respected. If you need an abortion, I support you. I will fight for your right to have that abortion in Ireland. I will fight for your right to be treated with dignity and respect as you undergo the procedure, and afterwards. If you need an abortion, I support you in any and every way I can. You deserve that because you are a woman. You are a human. Until it can survive outside your womb, what you hold inside it, is not. The contents of your womb are not worth more to me than you are. They are not worth as much. Your choices matter. Your decisions matter. Your rights matter. Your body matters. You matter.

Until the Eighth Amendment is repealed, however, Irish law will not recognise that fact. Until the Eighth Amendment is repealed, as a female in Ireland, your body will not belong to you. It’s time to change this. It’s time to stop telling our women they worth less than our men. It’s time to stop telling our daughters that they are worth less than our sons. It’s time to stop the misery that gendered violence brings.

Choose Life

This is a pro-life post. I am pro-life. I believe every one is. Including suicidal people. I say this because (as regular readers will know) I’ve struggled with suicidal ideation for most of my life. I am happy to say that it’s more than six months now since I thought it might be a good idea to kill myself.

But here’s the thing; I never wanted to die. Not really. I wanted the pain to end. I wanted to make the pain I was suffering go away. I wanted to live torment-free and know that the torment was gone for good. The sensible, logical part of my brain went through a slew of possibilities before, sensibly, logically, deciding that suicide was the best answer. How I’m actually still here is anybody’s guess – but I am. Maybe it’s because only the good die young.

Years ago, I heard the brilliant Professor Rory O’Connor speaking. Energetic, passionate and compassionate, Professor O’Connor was conducting research on suicide and he made an impassioned plea to everyone listening:

‘If ever there is a question to choose between life and death, choose life. Choose life!’

His words echoed in my head for months and years afterwards. On some of my dark days, I repeated them mantra-like adn waited for how I was feeling to catch up with what I was saying.

Today – World Suicide Prevention Day – I’d like to share two lists with you. First up is a list of things I would urge you to do for yourself if you are suicidal.

  1. Have a mantra and repeat it to yourself. This can be anything that steadies your soul. Choose a religious one if that helps. Or find an aphorism that works for you. For years, mine was ‘It will all come right in the end: If it’s not all right, it’s not the end’. My current favourite is ‘When you’re going through hell, keep going’ alternated with ‘You are never alone’ which echoes in my head in the voice of the wise friend who first said it to me.
  2. Seek help. Even though you feel you’re not worth it, believe me – you are. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: Have a message set up, on your phone, and ready to send to five or six people who know you and know your history and that you might – on occasion – be suicidal. It’s best if this note is kept short ‘I need help. Pls call me back if you can’ works for me. Then, when (or if) you do send the message, you will know that whoever gets back to you is self-selecting and you’re not intruding.
  3. Go somewhere safe. Even if the safest place for you right now is in bed, get back into bed. If it’s in your friend’s kitchen, go and sit in your friend’s kitchen.
  4. Ring a dedicated hotline – like the Samaritans or Pieta House. You are not ‘bothering’ these people by phoning them, you’re keeping them in a job. Make the call.
  5. Find a photograph of you that you like and that captures a moment when you were happy. Keep it in your wallet or somewhere you can find it in a hurry. Look at that photo and remember where you were when it was taken. That happy person is in there still. They will be back, if you just wait a while .

d22ff4fcdbd96408aef19Just because you think...worthless

Secondly, if you become aware that someone you know is suicidal, please be mindful of what you say:

1 Do not tell a suicidal person that they are being selfish. In the same way that you wouldn’t tell an asthmatic that their asthma was selfish.

2. Do ask if there is anything you can do – and offer something concrete; a cup of tea, a hug, a walk, etc.

3. If you think the person is ‘just looking for attention’ give it to them. If they are that desperate for attention, then they are desperate.

4. Don’t underestimate the power of witnessing; just being with a person and allowing them to feel what they’re feeling without trying to ‘fix’ it. It’s okay to just sit and say ‘I am here for you’.

5.  Don’t dismiss the feelings of a person who says they are suicidal. If you feel you can’t cope yourself, ring a dedicated hotline like The Samaritans or Pieta House.

The End of the LPA

Today, like thousands of other parents – primarily other mothers – I lost my lone parent’s allowance. Well, that’s not strictly true; I didn’t lose it – it was taken from me. That money is the only guaranteed income for my children and I. It is all I have to count on and now it’s gone.

Minister Joan Burton – who has taken this money from me and those like me – either has no idea what she’s done, or she doesn’t care. She is throwing thousands of families into further uncertainty and worry. We’re already poor, and bearing the stigma that goes with that (particularly in Irish society), now we’re further stigmatised because any notion that we should be allowed to choose to stay at home with our children has been completely removed from us; the idea that there is something dignified about raising your children has been dismissed by the Minister for Social Protection (a misnomer if ever I read one!).

This removal of the LPA is a cynical move by this government. It implies that those of us who are living on the grand sum of €181, plus €33 for each dependent child, are content on that amount of money and make no true or meaningful effort to enter or obtain paid employment. Apart from anything else, I find that implication hugely offensive. I do not know one person who is content to live on €181 per week and raise a child on an allowance of €33. How can any child be fed, clothed, shod and educated on that amount?

Actually, it’s a misstatement to talk of ‘living’ on LPA. You can’t live on that amount, you can merely try to exist. Worry and fear and shame and failure sit inside you, mingling and curdling and paralysing you. The obvious effects of a constant, chronic lack of money – otherwise knows as consistent poverty – are things like essential bills going unpaid: Of your light, heat and home being at risk of being taken from you; of being unable to buy enough nourishing food for your family, of being unable to buy clothes for your children or yourself.  Long-term poverty means more than that. It brings social isolation for you and your child/ren. You can’t throw a birthday party for your child if you can’t afford it. You can’t send your child to a party without a gift for the birthday boy or girl, so more often than not your child has to refuse invitations. You can’t go to the movies, buy books, or enjoy a night out anywhere without funds. You can’t even go for a nice drive in the country and enjoy a picnic if you can’t afford the petrol or the bus-fare to do so. You can’t get the extra educational supports your children need if you can’t afford them.

In her wisdom, Minister Joan Bruton has decided that it would be far better for me and my family if I had a job. I have to say I agree with her. A job would not only bring income, it would bring social engagement, it would bring an increase in self-esteem, and it would bring hope – the hope that dreams could come true for me and my girls. But her suggestion that taking our only source of income away from us will somehow prompt and prod me to get a job is repugnant. As if I – or any lone parent – needs to be forced into work! The sad truth is that we would happily if there were work available with childcare options that would mean our children would be properly cared for in our absence. Every woman I know who is raising children alone would love an income – we are currently trying everything we can, running little businesses from home, educating ourselves so we’re better equipped and skilled for the workforce and many of us are wishing we could afford to emigrate.

The myth of the social welfare cheat and the single mother who is a feckless young wan spreading her legs for  any young fella who comes along so she can get a free house and live high on the hog is tiresome. But it’s easy to believe by those who want someone to blame for their increased income tax – a bit like people who still refuse to relinquish their belief that the MMR vaccine creates autism.

Taking Lone Parent Allowance away from parents who are raising children on their own is punishing the parent who stayed. It is punishing the parent who didn’t walk away from their child. It is punishing the parent who is trying their best. It is punishing the parent who has faced up to her (or, in the small minority of cases, his) responsibilities. It is punishing the parent who who is prepared to parent.

Our government should know better – and be better – than that.

The Booby Trap

Listen, can we just stop? Can we, please? Can we please stop pitting women against each other? It’s sad, it’s upsetting, and it achieves absolutely nothing.

Women are fabulous at supporting each other, at sharing good times and bad (and cake!). They are wonderful at encouraging each other, and listening to each other, and caring for each other. They think nothing of dropping what they are doing and going to be with another woman or family who needs them. Women are brilliant.

But they can also be complete fucking bitches. No one can tear a woman down quite as viciously as another woman. No one can hurt a woman quite as deeply as another woman. No one can shame and victim-blame a woman quite as effectively as another woman.

And do you know who knows this really well? Those clever folk who run advertising and PR agencies. They know this from their own lives, from a little bit of research, from focus groups and from watching what happens when you pit one group of woman against another. They have put this knowledge to good use by creating an arena where breastfeeding mothers and artificially-feeding mothers are conflated as adversaries. They are sitting back and watching the show while they and their clients (the formula companies) are making a fortune. Those who are baited by the arguments are falling into this specially-constructed booby trap. I won’t bang on about it here, but if you are interested in learning more about the business of breastfeeding, I recommend this book.

Ireland has the lowest rates of breastfeeding and – by inference – the highest rates of artificial feeding in the world. There are billions of dollars to be made from formula feeding; not just the dairy (or other) milk that is used in making the formula, but the bottles and teats and sterilisers etc.  By comparison, there is very little money to be made from breastfeeding – a few breast-pads if you need them, maybe a consultation or three with a lactation consultant, a family-sized bar of chocolate every night and a number of feeding bras in different sizes. That’s pretty much it – unless you want a pump and some bottles to store that milk in. Chances are you’ll save on menstrual products as well, because your periods won’t return for months after the birth (if you’re lucky).

But look, everyone knows that breast is best. This is not a blog post banging on about how I think other women should feed their babies. For the record, I breastfed both of mine. Except my eldest had no suck because she was born at 30 weeks so I expressed for her and fed her from a bottle. When she was ten months old, my ex-husband put pressure on me to stop breastfeeding (I was already supplementing with formula because I didn’t know then what I know now). I gave up, but re-lactated when I left him a few months later. She gave up breastfeeding at 19 months, when I was 20 weeks pregnant with my second. My younger daughter was breastfed from the day she was born until she was five and a half years old. Primarily because I’m lazy and this suited me best. Also, it was effortless (I was lucky) and free.

But that’s me – those were my choices based on the information I had, what suited me best, and what best suited my family at that time. I don’t want to try and convert other women and judge them and tell them that they are doing wrong by not breastfeeding. Women who want to breastfeed, for the most part, will breastfeed. Women who don’t, won’t.  Sadly, there will always be a small minority of women who want to breastfeed but will be unable to, for a variety of reasons. I’d hazard a guess that, for most of those women, those reasons include a lack of information, a lack of support, and pressure from family to give up at the first sign of trouble.

So, this latest stick to beat breastfeeding women with – the backlash against ‘brelfies’ – is annoying me. For a start, if looking at a woman feeding her child bothers you, look away. When a woman breastfeeds her baby, you can’t see much breast at all – you’ll generally only see the back of the baby’s head – unless and until the baby unlatches. As it happens, all of the women I have discussed breastfeeding with are more worried about people seeing their wobbly bellies, than they are about people seeing their breasts being used for the primary purpose.

How's this for a 'brelfie'?  (Kashmira's first feed, aged about 5 minutes.)
How’s this for a ‘brelfie’?
(Kashmira’s first feed, aged about 5 minutes.)

Most women see breastfeeding their babies in public as something they have to do in order to ensure their babies don’t die of hunger and dehydration, they’re not doing it to be provocative or feminist or defiant. The same as mothers who bottlefeed their babies, really. People who think otherwise need to check where their prejudice and discomfort comes from and confront them rather than women who are busy feeding their children.

How I feed my babies is my business. How you feed your babies is your business. I do believe that with more support, more information and more easily accessible help, more women would choose to breastfeed – because choice, after all, is only really a choice when it’s fully informed and all options are presented honestly and in their entirety. In the meantime, though, let’s get busy supporting all mothers because all of us need support, no matter how we’re feeding our babies.

Spoil The Rod And Spare The Child

There’s a great national debate taking place in Ireland at the moment around the area of child abuse. Sorry, I mean slapping. Actually, scratch that, I do mean child abuse. Hitting is abuse, it’s physical abuse no matter how light, how hard, or who administers it.

As the teacher and child psychologist Haim G. Ginott put it:

‘When a child hits a child, we call it aggression. When a child hits an adult, we call it hostility. When an adult hits an adult, we call it assault. When an adult hits a child, we call it discipline.’

I understand, and have sympathy for, people who have nothing else in their toolboxes to deal with children. Rather than use tools that don’t work, however, they need to go and find tools that do. In order to find such tools, they need to go looking for them; and they won’t go looking for them unless they feel they need to. There is no argument for hitting children. I’ve heard people try to explain it over the past few days saying things like ‘you can’t reason with a toddler’ and the truly wonderfully  rationale ‘it never did me any harm’. With regard to the former, I think people who say that mean ‘you can’t bend a toddler’s will as easily as you might like’. It is possible to reason with toddlers, you just have to be willing to try. You just have to be willing to meet them where they are. You just have to be willing to see things from their point of view.

As for people who claim that being hit did them no harm and, therefore, they are quite right to hit their own children, I really do beg to differ.  If you were hit as a child and you hit your own child/ren, then all you are doing is perpetuating the cycle of abuse, which you can read more about here.

So much of our acceptance of child-hitting stems from our attitude to children as ‘belonging’ to us in a proprietary sense. We view them as our property and forget that it is a privilege – not a right – to be a parent. We also have a duty to do our best. I’ve heard a lot this week about how ‘all parents want what’s best for their children’, I simply don’t believe that. I have encountered too many children and adults whose parents clearly had no desire to do what was best for their children, but rather a desire to do what was was easiest for them (the parents).

It takes bravery to break a cycle; having broken the cycle of abuse in my own family, I know how hard it can be. I have heard people on vox pops on radio talking about how ‘everyone’ hits their children, and that it’s perfectly okay. But do you remember when ‘everyone’ used to drive without wearing a seat-belt? And how ‘everyone’ used to drive after a few drinks? And how ‘everyone’ used to drive and use their mobile phone at the same time? We’ve changed those attitudes, those habits and the laws around those issues, so there’s no reason we can’t do the same with this issue.

It takes a change in public perception and attitudes before a change in the law will be accepted by society. Last week’s marriage referendum in Ireland is indicative of this; the referendum would never have passed, opening the way for the laws to be changed, if Irish society had not changed thinking and attitude towards its non-heterosexual members.  It took a lot of campaigning, a lot of discussion, a lot of heartachingly honest conversations in public and in private to bring about this change.

I am hopeful that the current examination of our attitude towards hitting children is the next step in our journey towards respecting the rights of children – which is not something we have a habit of doing in this country.

The Referendum That Nobody Lost

Map of the Day

There were no losers in Friday’s referendum. Love won, and when love wins, nobody loses – not even those who voted no and did not want the amendment to be made.

This referendum was important and it really caught my kids’ attention. Ishthara, at 13, was a bit stumped that we would even have to vote on it in the first place. Why would a civil right be reserved for one ‘type’ of person? On Wednesday night, Kashmira sent me a text to let me know how many minutes were left before I could vote. On Thursday night, she set her alarm for 6.30am to make sure I was up in time to vote. (I explained that I wasn’t voting until 10.30am, so there was no need for her alarm!).

On Friday night, she was anxious – worried that, somehow, our electorate might not actually vote in favour of equality – so I was delighted to bring the news to her that the early reports were good. As we listened to the radio and I refreshed my Twitter feed every two seconds, we found sitting still difficult. Both my girls expressed a desire to be in the courtyard of Dublin Castle when the result was declared. They wanted to be there, they wanted to share the excitement and the joy and to celebrate.

We were lucky; getting to Dublin Castle just after 2pm, we managed to get right up the front, with just one line of people between us and the crush barrier. There was so much joy, so much celebration, so much love in the air that we wouldn’t have wanted to have been everywhere else.

Cheers of joy went up every time a constituency returned its numbers, and yet another area of the country turned green. Cork, for some reason, kept us waiting more than two hours. In the end, however, they were forgiven, because they voted ‘yes’, too.

‘Will this be in history books in the future?’ Kashmira asked.

‘Yes,’ I said.

She beamed.

‘And I can say I was there.’

There were so many beautiful moments – like when Katherine Zappone re-proposed to Ann Louise Gilligan; when David Norris took to the stage and he and Colm O’Gorman embraced. When Colm asked the crowd if anyone had seen Úna Mullally, and when Úna made her way on stage and was overwhelmed and Colm held her and let her cry on his shoulder. The young French woman at the end who was just standing, alone, crying tears of joy. I walked to her and hugged her and she explained that she was French but so proud of Ireland and so proud to be with us on the most day in our recent history. Personally, I was very proud of David Carroll and Grainne Healy with whom I studied in DCU, who were gracious in their victory.

One of the messages that rang out loud and clear yesterday was that Irish people are a generally decent lot and that we can be trusted to make decisions for ourselves; something our government would do well to remember when treating us like children and making decisions on our behalf that are not in our best interests.

Now that we have brought marriage equality to these shores, we have other issues to sort out – child poverty; the lack of abortion rights;  women’s rights; children’s rights, and our appalling suicide rates all need to be tackled. Let’s grab the momentum generated by the recent campaign and make it work for us on these other important issues, too.

Baby Maria’s Mum

Last Friday, Ireland’s listening ears were arrested by the news that a baby girl had been found in a bag in Rathcoole in Co. Dublin.

The usual appeal went up in the media for the mother of the baby to come forward. She was told, via news bulletins and articles in the papers, that she would be treated sensitively, and there were ‘concerns’ for her health. So far so inoffensive.

Then the speculation started. It was assumed by some that she was a single mother, perhaps one who couldn’t afford an abortion.

All the speculation reached screaming-at-the-radio levels today, when Pat Kenny spoke to the pompous psychologist David Carey in an ‘interview’ which consisted of two fatuous, upper middle-class, upper middle-aged white men indulging themselves with conjecture, speculation and discussion of the social, emotional and mental health of this woman. Calling their self-indulgent twaddle patronising is an understatement. It was unhelpful, at best, and damaging at worst. If you have low blood pressure, you can listen back here.

These two men, comfortably ensconced in their ivory towers, sounded very smug as they speculated on every aspect of this woman’s life: They decided she was poor, distressed, probably in need of medical attention and possibly on drugs. Look, I’m not saying that the media shouldn’t have reported that the baby was found, of course they should, even just in the hope that it would help to find her mother . But the media should stick to reporting facts and the facts in this case are that a baby girl was found in Rathcoole, she was less than 3 days old, she was healthy, removed to a hospital and her parents (as of today, not just her mother) is being sought. That is all we can know for sure and that should be the limit of what is reported and commented on.

What annoyed and vexed and upset me today was listening to all the supposition that is going on. The woman in question was patronised, pitied (comments like ‘the poor girl’ really set my teeth on edge) and blamed. Because if there’s one thing we’re really fantastic in this country, it’s victim blaming. For all these conjecture-merchants knew, the baby might have had a very abusive father and the mother felt that the safest place for the baby was where she was left. Lord knows that the HSE can’t be trusted: Maybe this woman had already had a baby (in spite of David Carey claiming it was most likely a first baby – he has no proof that that’s the case) in a hospital and was so brutalised by the system she couldn’t bear to return (this is not far-fetched, research for my PhD bears this out).

Maybe there was drug-taking, and the father was the one doing the drugs. Maybe this woman was in a relationship where the father decided the baby didn’t look enough like him and started saying it wasn’t his and threatening the mum and the baby. Maybe the woman gave birth and fed the baby and to punish her for loving someone else, the jealous father took the baby and abandoned it. This is me, speculating, painting possible scenarios. Wild and all as they are, they are just as likely, just as possible, just as credible as anything that Pat and David came up with this morning.

The only difference is that I haven’t patronised the woman in question. I haven’t decided I know anything about her and spouted it on the national airwaves with authority.

I know nothing about this woman, I don’t claim to, and I don’t need to. I just hope with all my heart that she is safe, she is well and that she finds peace sooner rather than later.

Make Grá The Law

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The Rubber Bandits posted this on their Facebook page and I think it’s a fine example of an easy-to-understand graphic. They have distilled all that is essential about the upcoming marriage referendum into this pithy visual.

All the recent talk on the referendum and equality and gay rights has meant a few little surprises for me. I’ve found myself reading something on Twitter or Facebook and thinking ‘God! I never realised she was gay’ or ‘Is he gay? I never knew that.’ I have long since resigned myself to the fact that my gaydar malfunctions. If, that is, it even exists. But do you know what else? I’m not gay, so I don’t need a gaydar. I don’t actually need to know who is in your pants – whether you’re gay or straight – because it’s none of my business. The reason I can’t ‘spot’ gay people is they are exactly the same as straight people: They (generally) look the same – one head, four limbs, ears a back and a front. They think the same – being able to grasp concepts such as 1+1 =2 just as quickly as straights. They love the same – as deeply, passionately and completely – as everyone else.

I don’t care who other people fancy, who they love and who they want to marry. What I do care about is that people have the right, in law, to fancy, love and marry whomever they want. I do not want to marry a woman, but if you do, I think you should have the right to do so. Come to think of it, I don’t want to marry a man (thrice bitten and all that), but if you do, I think you should have the right to do so.

I’ll leave you with this, where you can see that passion and facts win over bluster and speciousness every time.

http://www.rte.ie/player/ie/show/10414244/ 

Why ‘No’ Now?

If you’re living outside of Ireland at the moment, you might be unaware that our little country is going to the polls next month to vote in two referendums. The first (which I’m not going to discuss at any great length just yet) is to change the constitution to allow those over the age of 21 to be elected president. The other offers Irish people the chance to change the constitution in order to make marriage equally available to people regardless of their sex. If passed, the amendment would read:

              ‘Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex’.

Personally, I think that’s a glorious idea. I think it is a wonderful idea to make marriage available to people who want to get married. Let’s think, for a moment, about what marriage actually is. It started as a way to bind two people together in order to protect assets; it was commonly used to join the estates of two families of equal standing. Sometimes, one party would be wealthier, in the financial sense, than the other. In those cases, the less financially well-off person would bring something else – social cachet, considerable beauty or the willingness to marry the gimpy son of the wealthy merchant – to the partnership. Marriage also served as a way to try to ensure – in the days before DNA tests – that the children men were raising were their own. Within the confines of a marriage, people were contractually obliged to have sex with no one but their individual spouses.

That brings me to another point; long before it was about love and fluffy stuff, marriage was about the legalities of safeguarding wealth and property within the confines of the marriage and with regard to inheritance. Marriage was and still is a legally binding contract. People enter into legally binding contracts with people of the same sex all the time. People enter into legally binding contracts with people of the opposite sex all the time. No one bats an eyelid. Why shouldn’t men and women enter into legally binding contracts with whomever they want whenever they want?

These days, our understanding and expectations of marriage have changed to incorporate an assumption that the two parties are deeply in love and want to spend the rest of their lives together based on that love. The legally binding contract bit hasn’t gone away, however. (Though it has changed a bit to reflect that women are not regarded as property; rape within marriage is illegal, violence within marriage is illegal and a husband can no longer sue another man for ‘lack of consort’ if his wife has an affair).

Many people still choose to get married in accordance with their religious beliefs, and this referendum – if passed – will not change that. Religious marriages, however, are not civil marriages. Anyone who gets married in a religious ceremony also needs to have a civil marriage in order for their marriage to be legally recognised. That is why the argument some religious people have against equal marriage perplexes me: equal marriage is about civil marriage, not religious marriage of any denomination. The terms and conditions (for want of a better way of putting it) of religious marriages will not change if the constitution does.

The ‘argument’ that children will be adversely affected if they are brought up by two loving parents is just an exercise in casuistry, not an argument at all. Not to mention that it’s rather irrelevant if you refer back to the wording of the proposed change in the constitution.

In November 2012, we had the opportunity to vote in another referendum. At that time, I was open about my intention to vote ‘No’. It was an unpopular stance; many people I know and respect were voting ‘Yes’ and campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote.  While I disagreed with them, I could understand their point, I could see where they were coming from. This time around, however, I can’t say that. There are many people who are campaigning for a ‘No’ vote and I would really like to understand why. So far, I haven’t heard a single real argument against equal marriage. Maybe this is because there isn’t one, or maybe it’s because I just haven’t been pointed in the right direction.

If you feel that a ‘No’ vote is required on May 22nd, I’d like to hear from you. I’d like to understand your objection and engage with it.

Lying Straight in Bed

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In all the years before I had children, I daydreamed about how I would raise them. I thought a lot about how much I would love them, how I would make sure they knew they were loved, how I would treat them. Before I was even a teenager, I decided that I would never lie to them. Not ever. Not even once. I had an idea that trust was an important element of parenting, that it was an important way to teach my children that I was a trustworthy person, and they would always be safe with me.

I have to admit, that policy has served me well. Even when I’m asked awkward questions, I answer them as honestly as I can. Sometimes, I give fuller answers than necessary, resulting in one or other (sometimes both!) of my girls beating a hasty retreat and saying ‘TMI, Mum! Okay, you can stop talking now!’

Until last night.

Kashmira is ten – she’ll be eleven next month – and she has a rich imagination. She also loves reading and counts among her favourite authors people like Ruth Long and John Connolly. In case you’re unaware, these authors don’t write about fluffy bunnies that get lost in the garden and go off on adventures with gentle fairies before being found by child owners who cuddle them happily. Oh no.

Last night, Kashmira came in to me some time after 11pm.

‘I just came in for a cuddle,’ she announced, arms out-stretched.

She popped into the bed beside me and snuggled in.

‘I might just sleep here tonight.’

‘That’s fine.’

‘Except…..am I not a bit old?’

‘No! It’s perfectly normal for human beings to seek other human beings – it’s very artificial to sleep in a room on your own. From an anthropological point of view, humans have….’

‘Mum!’ Kashmira’s tone was urgent. ‘I’m not here because I’m human, I’m here because I’m scared!’

‘Oh. Well that’s perfectly normal, too.’

‘I can’t get my imagination to stop. I can’t get the thoughts to leave me alone. It’s worse at night.’

I stop to think and pull something out of my repertoire for when I write and talk about mental health:

‘Well, who owns your brain, where your imagination lives?’ I ask.

‘I do,’ she responds and I nod.

‘Right. So you get to choose which thoughts you entertain. I imagine myself sitting on a park bench and my thoughts are passing in front of me – I can choose which ones I invite to sit on the bench beside me, or which ones I tell to walk on by.’

She considers this for a nanosecond.

‘Fine. But what if your thoughts don’t pass in front of you? What if they jump out from behind a tree and sneak up behind you and attack you before you even know they’re there?’

Emmmmm….no one in any of the seminars or workshops I’ve spoken at has ever asked me that.

‘I can’t control my imagination,’ Kashmira continued. ‘The thoughts just keep coming at me, I don’t even know where they come from.’

‘You’ve a fabulous imagination,’ I remind her. ‘It comes up with the most amazing ideas and ways of looking at things…’

‘Yes, and it has the ability to terrify me – especially at night! And then I don’t want to sleep on my own.’

‘But you don’t have to sleep on your own. You can always come in to me.’

‘I know, but…’ she hesitates and I am aware that we’re about to get to the crux of the matter. ‘Am I not too old to come in to my mum at night cos I’m scared?’

And that’s when it happens. The lie words tumble out of my mouth.

‘Absolutely not!’ I scoff. ‘I happen to know for a fact that John Connolly was still going in to his mum at night when he was a scared fifteen-year-old.’

Kashmira’s face lights up.

‘Really?’ she asks.

‘Yes!’ I sound so convincing, I have myself believing my own lie. ‘And look at the imagination he has. You can guess how scared he was at night. When he was fifteen. Going in to his mam.’

The relief rolled off the child and she settled down, reassured that she wasn’t a big baby, but rather a ten year-old with an imagination who sometimes needed the presence of another in the middle of the night to make sure that characters in her rich, vivid imagination didn’t ‘get her’ while she slept.

So, John, the next time you see Kashmira at a book signing, or any other event, or even just on the street, will you do me a solid? If she asks you about being fifteen and being scared and needing your mum in the middle of the night, will you just nod and confirm my version of events? Thanks a million.

Images: The covers of two of Kashmira’s favourite books, swiped from their respective authors’ web-sites. 

Can You Breastfeed Your Kids Gifted?

Breastfeeding and IQ
Breastfeeding to Giftedness?

(This piece first appeared on the Gifted Ireland blog.) 

Last week, the media was all aflutter with news that breastfeeding makes children smarter which, in turn, leads to a higher level of education and, by extension, better paid employment. Breastfeed your kids if you want them to be smarter and earn more (and, perhaps, choose an altogether more pleasant nursing home for you!) was the message mainstream media sent us. Newspapers here, in the US and in the UK told us that breastfed children have higher IQs and earn more money.

Before I go any further, let me declare my own personal bias. I am a breastfeeding advocate and have been for as long as I can remember. I breastfed my own children until they self-weaned (which was five-and-a-half years in one case), donated my spare milk to the milk bank and am a firm believer in the healing powers of mothers’ milk for pretty much every ailment and difficulty associated with early childhood. Nothing, therefore, would make me happier than to read new research making stronger and further arguments for breastfeeding.

Unfortunately, the study cited in this longitudinal study from Brazil doesn’t do that.  The fact that breastfed children have higher IQs (or artificially-fed children have lower IQs, depending on how you look at things) is not news. Instead, what is new is that the authors of this study claim that breastfeeding causes higher IQs, which in turn causes higher educational attainment, which in turn causes higher incomes.

Many women I’ve heard from in the past few days have been saying – tongue in cheek for the most part – that their babies will be geniuses on account of the fact that they have been breastfed. Some, who are part of the GAS network of support groups, have wondered if their children are Gifted because they were breastfed and if they might be more Gifted if they had been breastfed for longer.

Sadly, the findings of this study don’t support that theory. For a start, we already know that there is an inherited element to intelligence that infant feeding has no bearing on.  We are also aware that children who are of gifted intelligence don’t necessarily do well at school for a variety of reasons (we won’t go into those reasons here – that’s a whole other blog post!). In addition, even those who do well at school and go on to attain BAs, MAs and PhDs don’t always earn more than those who are not as well educated: The sense of global justice that often accompanies gifted intelligence sees those with the highest IQs busy themselves in academia, research and other areas that don’t necessarily bring the most financial reward. Or, we find that they reap the greatest rewards pursuing their passions – which doesn’t necessarily bring riches, either.

Crucially, with regard to giftedness, this article finds that the difference in IQ between the most extreme groups was nearly four points, or less than a quarter of a standard deviation. While this is certainly statistically significant, giftedness is marked by the presence of two standard deviations above the mean. More importantly, the margin of error in IQ tests is five points, so the difference of not quite four points between the most extreme groups make the findings of this study meaningless.

The difference in education was just 0.9 years, which is roughly a quarter of a standard deviation. Again, this isn’t a difference big enough to have push someone’s education up a level; it’s just over a month, really.  The difference in income was reported at about a third of the average income in Brazil. It’s a bit of a leap to extrapolate that figure into non-Brazilian populations (as much of the mainstream media did) because there are so many variables associated with income.

Of interest is that, of the 3,493 adults in the study, those who were unemployed were excluded from the analysis. Michele Pippet, Gifted Ireland’s Treasurer, is a psychologist, and in her work with gifted adults, Michele has noticed that, while there are many who are hugely successful, there are many who are un- or under-employed. So excluding unemployed adults who were breastfed from the study skews the results somewhat.

The other difficulty with these findings is that the study didn’t measure home environment characteristics during childhood; nor did it factor in maternal-infant bonding. It, therefore, does not explore the possibility that associations identified might be attributable to the biological components of breastmilk itself, mother-infant bonding or the intellectual stimulation of breastfed children. I have to wonder, though, how exactly they did that – because the article in the Lancet doesn’t give any indication. My research in the area of breastfeeding leads me to believe that, when a child is breastfed from the breast (as opposed to fed expressed breastmilk from a bottle), the separation of the benefit of the actual milk from other influencing factors is nigh on impossible.

I’m also concerned with how this study defined ‘breastfeeding’. Once the babies who had been signed up to study were 19 or 42 months old, researchers asked their mothers how they had been fed. While exclusive breastfeeding was noted, it was excluded from the analysis of the study which I find a staggering omission. Exclusive breastfeeding to six months of age is the minimum recommended by the WHO (though I can’t be sure when that was first recommended, I know it was more than 20 years ago) and it should surely be seen as relevant in a study like this.  I also wonder at the value of asking mothers so long after their children were born. Whatever about the children who were 19 months old, those who were 42 months old may well have had younger siblings by then and we all know how easy it is to get details of your children’s babyhoods confused.

This study also has a large percentage of ‘loss’. That is, there is a large number of candidates who were lost from the final number of participants (including 325 who are known to have died before the study concluded). The study started with 5,914 and finished with 2,421 participants. This represents a loss of 41% which, to social researchers, is a suboptimal rate. In general, a loss rate of 20% is considered good, while a 40% loss rate is not considered acceptable. Further, we’re not told if this loss includes the unemployed who were excluded from the findings, or if this loss of 41% is further compounded by more exclusions. So we really do have to treat these results with caution.

The bottom line with these results was that men in the survey had slightly higher IQ results than women (again, there are difficulties with the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, third version – the test used), women attained higher educational results than men, and men earned more than women. Which is pretty much how things play out in every country in the world regardless of how and what babies were fed.

I would treat the results of this study with caution: Breastfeed your children if you want to do what’s best for them, but don’t expect it to turn them into genii as a result.

If you would like to read the study in its entirety, it can be downloaded here.

My Simon Cowell Moment

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I’m not going to win any friends with this post, but sometimes, some things need to be said.

There was a piece in yesterday’s Irish Times. I’m deliberately not going to link to it because if you really want to read it, you’ll go and find it yourself.

The piece I’m talking about was written by a very young person. The headline did its job and drew me in – excited to read what followed. The headline was, at best, slightly mis-leading. It suggested that the young author of the piece had written a novel. She hasn’t. Which is fine. No one would think she was a slacker for not writing a novel at such a young age. The young girl in question likes to read and she likes to write. She has started to write a book, which she hopes to finish and is wishful of getting a publisher for. A section of her book is reproduced at the end of the article and (here’s my Simon Cowell moment) it’s not very good. In fact, it’s pretty awful. I’d expect more of any 13 year old and I’d expect a lot more of a 13 year old who was published in a national newspaper.

I am delighted this child likes to read. She should be encouraged to read every spare moment she has. She should be given a torch to facilitate reading under the covers when she’s supposed to  be asleep. She should be given lovely stationery and taken to the pen shop to buy herself a fabulous writing instrument. She should be encouraged to read books about writing. She should be encouraged to love language and love manipulating it. She should be told to keep at it, that writing is a craft and benefits from daily practice. She should be sent on writing courses and workshops for children her age. She should be encouraged in her endeavours. She absolutely should.

I don’t think, however, her parents or the editor of the newspaper should have allowed her to publish a few hundred words of a book she has started writing, hopes to finish and hopes to publish. Especially when it’s not very good. I think it’s an awful thing to do to a child. She’s 13 and she has started to write a book. Newsflash! That’s not unusual. I’d say in an average class of 30 average 13 year olds in Ireland today, you’ll have at least five who harbour a desire to write a book. Most of them are probably scribbling away in journals and copybooks and on laptops. And they are quite right. But most of those books will be abandoned long before they are finished. New projects will be started and (perhaps) not finished either. If they are finished, they will be re-read and the writer will realise that they have better in them. They may start to write another book. Or they may not. This is all perfectly normal.

The difference is that all these children have the safety and security of writing away in their own homes until they have finished something they can be proud of, and are ready to show to the world. If they don’t end up, at 13, with something they are proud of and want to share with the world, that’s perfectly fine. The world is not waiting for them to.

Unlike the girl in yesterday’s paper. What kind of pressure – internal or external – will she be under now to produce a novel worthy of publication in five months’ time? What if she can’t? What if she changes her mind? Every school has bullies. Has this girl been encouraged to give the bullies in her school a stick to beat with her with? I hope not. I hope she finishes her book and that, as she edits and re-writes, it improves. I hope she finds herself a publisher and gets her book published and has a fabulous book launch and some famous people say lovely things and she’s fit to burst with pride. But I worry about what will happen to her and her self-esteem and sense of self if things don’t work out for her.

I am reminded of something a tutor told us when I was studying Theatre 110 years ago.

‘Never tell anyone what you’re doing until you’ve done it’.

There’s wisdom in that, and I just wish this enthusiastic girl with her love of reading and writing had been protected a bit better by her parents and the editor of the paper who published her.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – A Review

I’m a bit late with this post, but better late than never, I suppose?

My girls and I were lucky enough to score front row tickets to the  opening night of The Abbey’s current production last Tuesday. In the middle of last year, Kashmira (the ten year old) declared A Midsummer Night’s Dream (AMSD) her favourite Shakespeare play. It was the first she’d read that wasn’t a tragedy and I think that may have swayed her somewhat, as well as the whimsical nature of the dream scene. Ishthara (the 12 year old) and I are still staunch Romeo & Juliet fans, but are open to good productions of any of the Bard’s plays.

From the moment we took our seats, it was obvious that this was going to be a production with a difference. The mobility aid just beyond the diaphanous curtain was a bit of a giveaway.

The play opened with a gang of elders dancing around their care home to the strains of Johnny Cash’s Ghost Riders which is every bit as amusing as it sounds. Instantly, we knew that we were in a telling of the tale that had been catapulted into the 21st century. There were several nods to modernity and technology that were as clever as they were funny (I won’t give details, for fear of spoiling the surprises).

I loved that there were so few cast members under the age of sixty, and I loved their fluidity at portraying a version of their younger selves during the dream scenes. It was a touching reminder that we are only as old as we allow our spirits to become. And that love is not the preserve of the under thirty-fives.

This was Gavin Quinn’s directorial debut at the Abbey but I sincerely doubt it is the last time we will see the work of  this talented director at the National Theatre. When I was training years and years (and years!) ago,  I learnt that a good director is one who casts well and then stands back and lets the actors do the job s/he was convinced they would do well in the first place; who has a grand overview of how they want things done, shares that with the actors and allows them to play with the script interpreting as they are moved to. A great director is one who is available, yet not intrusive; who is supportive, yet not  overbearing; who offers suggestions rather than dictates absolutes. Someone who holds the space and allows the magic to happen. A bit like a good midwife, really.

You can tell when actors have been well directed – they are more believable in their roles because they believe it themselves; so much so that they become the characters. I felt that very much with this production. The actors were so comfortable with the language that it was secondary. The language was a vehicle for the production rather than the production itself. In fact, the meaning of the language was conveyed so effortlessly that both my girls double-checked with me that they were listening to the original text and not a ‘modernised’ version. We were watching a play that had been written by Shakespeare, rather than actors ‘doing’ Shakespeare. There is a difference.

I appreciated the yellow and blue theme in costume and design that peppered the stage throughout the evening: Declan Conlon’s touch of midnight blue make-up served to accentuate his chiseled features and added a touch of menace to his Oberon.   Although I was distracted by Shadaan Felfeli’s (yellow) langota when his (yellow) lunghi fell prey to gravity in the middle of his yogic headstand. I’m still at a loss as to why the yoga was there to start with – unless it was some sort of physical metaphor for how upside-down everything was?

Anyway.

As ever, with recent Abbey productions, it’s difficult to single one actor out for praise. They work so well together supporting each other in order to allow everyone to shine that the whole is always more than the sum of its parts. That said, I loved Peadar Lamb in his final scenes. He had me crying with laughter. Daniel Reardon (who made me feel dirty just watching him in Sive) made a refreshing Puck. Gina Moxley was a delight as Helena, while Máire Hastings, Stella McCusker and Máire Ní Ghráinne were delightful in their roles as Cobweb, Peaseblosssom and Mustardseed respectively. I could not take my eyes off Áine Ní Mhuirí and John Kavnagh in their roles as Hermia and Lysander. They rendered a touching tenderness for each other that melted my heart. Fiona Bell played Titania with a lightness of touch and an elegant grace that chimed beautifully with the lyricism of her lines. (Oh! And her dress, her lovely, shiny, sparkly silver dress!)

If you put a gun to my head, however, and told me I had to single one actor out, it would be David Pearse as Peter Quince in the play within a play. For me, Mr Pearse confirmed his comic abilities in She Stoops to Conquer so I knew I’d laugh when I saw he was in AMND as well. What I hadn’t expected was to react to his efforts when he entered to deliver the prologue to the metaplay towards the end. Struck with a bit of stage-fright, he stumbled over his words, stopped, started and squirmed. I felt for him, exactly the same way I’d felt for a young Donegal stand-up comedian in a comedy club years ago who totally forgot what he was supposed to be saying and completely corpsed. I sat in the audience, all those years ago, rooting for that young lad and willing him to go on – even to repeat himself if that’s what he needed to do. For a few seconds on Tuesday night David Pearse wrangled the same emotion out of me. Until I reminded myself that it was the character not the actor who was busy dying in front of my eyes. Then, with everyone else, I chuckled, giggled and laughed. A lesser actor would have milked that bit, and played for the laughs. But David Pearse is like the gifted painter who knows that one more brush stroke will ruin his masterpiece.

Look, I’ll stop gushing now, but suffice to say that this production is a terrific evening’s entertainment for all the family. We hadn’t left the building before my girls were asking how soon we could return and which of their friends they could bring.

Vote With Your Ears

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In 2010, Margaret E. Ward set up Women On Air in a response to the lack of female voices in Irish media – specifically on radio. At the time, the voices on Irish radio were nearly 90% male, according to a piece ‘Radio Gaga’ by Una Mullally. Things aren’t much better in early 2015, I’m afraid.

Women’s voices are sorely lacking from prime time radio and the number of women who present their own programmes is woefully low.

It annoys me that there are so few women presenters on national radio stations between the hours of 7am and noon. I’m starting to think, however, that being annoyed about it isn’t going to change anything. The only way that anything will change is if women and men insist on that change. So, I’ve decided that, for the next month, I’m only going to listen to women between those hours. If there is no female presenter on Irish radio, I’ll switch to the BBC or switch off. So, basically, my choice is between Morning Ireland on RTÉ (on one of the mornings that Claire Byrne or Rachel English present), Patricia Messinger on C103 or Tracy Clifford on Dublin’s Spin 103.8 (is 103 the pro-female frequency?).

While I’m delighted to hear these women on air, I despair that there are so few. I do hope I’m wrong and that there are tens more women who broadcast around the country between these hours. If I’ve missed one, would you be kind enough to point out my error in the comments box? Also – if you fancy it – why don’t you join me in my boycott of all-male radio?

A Year on From ‘Check Myself’

A year ago, Panti Bliss stood on the Abbey stage and delivered an amazing speech. The video had us all here in Ireland talking. Within days, the clip of Panti’s oration went viral. It wasn’t just Irish people who were talking – people the world over were tweeting the link and getting in touch with Panti. Even Madonna was moved to email Panti and commend her on her honest, passionate speech.

I wrote about it at the time and I haven’t changed my mind.  I still think Panti was brave and magnificent that night. I think she deserved every word of praise that came her way.

But.

But there is something that has bothered me since I first saw the video. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it immediately. Something just niggled at me; like a word on the tip of your tongue, or seeing a photograph of someone you used to know really well, but whose face you can’t put a name to. It was a few months before the penny dropped and I realised where my discomfort sprang from.

Here’s the thing; Panti Bliss got on stage and spoke about her reality. She was lauded and applauded around the globe. Suddenly, people outside of this little island knew who Panti Bliss was, the name of Rory O’Neill (Panti’s alter-ego) became known around the world as well. At the same time, women around the world are screaming to have their truths heard. They are clamouring to have their voices listened to, their eloquently-expressed points of view taken seriously and their realities acknowledged.

A woman living in what is still a man’s world – men make the rules and women have to engage with, and play by, them – needs to be like a man in order to succeed. A woman who works in a profession learns very quickly that traits and behaviour mimicking the most male of males is what garners respect, kudos and positive comments. The professions value their creators – men – more than they value women. Men make the rules, and they make them so they favour men. Even the so-called ‘feminine’ professions – like nursing and teaching – favour men. More men get promoted, and more quickly, to senior positions than women. Every day when such a woman gets up to go to work, she is essentially dressing in drag, and trying desperately to fit in to a profession that does not value her nearly as much as it values her male colleagues.

In a nutshell, what made me uncomfortable about Panti Bliss’s wonderful address last year was nothing about Panti and the way she spoke and what she said. What made me uncomfortable was the knowledge that when a man wears a dress, puts on heels, carefully applies make-up and speaks his truth, he is is heard more clearly, listened to more carefully and applauded more loudly than a woman who does the same thing.

A Thousand Germans

I learnt something tonight.
After WWII, there was fierce hardship all across Europe – including in Germany. People were starving.
Ireland, under Dev, made the humanitarian gesture to home 1,000 German children. They were welcome to stay indefinitely.
Many went home to their families when things in Germany improved.
Many more stayed here – because their families were dead, or couldn’t take them back, or couldn’t be found. This is right and proper. These children were not monsters. They had done nothing wrong. They were children.
Anyway, the Irish gov REFUSED to take Jewish children from Germany or anywhere else..
Eventually, under pressure (from the UK, I believe), they ‘gave in’ and said they would take 100 Jewish children. No, that’s not a typographical error. One thousand ‘Christian’ Germans. One hundred Jewish children.

But these children were only welcome for one year.
After that, they had to go back to Germany or wherever they had come from – never mind that their families might well have been exterminated by the families of the one thousand German children who were given succour. Never mind if they had nowhere to go.
I am so ashamed. I am so ashamed that this was how my country treated a people who had been tortured and belittled and shamed and stripped of everything they possessed and even their dignity. People who had been beaten and starved and abused in ways I can’t even begin to imagine.

Do you know who told me?

A Holocaust survivor.

He wasn’t bitter. Just hurt. It came up in conversation after dinner as we sat and chatted about what he and his beloved had been up to since the last time we’d seen each other. He didn’t go out of his way to tell me in order to make a point.
‘Ireland took 1,000 German children. That was good….humanitarian….the right thing to do.’
Then his voice dropped.
‘But they could have taken 1,000 Jewish children too.’

He is right, of course.

I am ashamed. We are not a decent people. We try to tell ourselves we are, but we’re not. This is how Ireland treats those who come to her desperate, frightened, weary, starving. Our attitude to vulnerable people has not changed. If you don’t believe me, take a trip out to Mosney some day.

She Stoops to Conquer – Two Reviews

Last night, we went to The Abbey Theatre and treated ourselves to yet another exceptional performance. This time, we saw ‘She Stoops to Conquer’. It was magnificent with all the hallmarks we’ve come to expect of an Abbey production; sumptuous costumes, magnificent sets and clever direction as well as hard-working actors plying their craft.

But never mind what I thought of it. My girls have written reviews and I’ve published them here (with their permission):

Review of “She Stoops To Conquer” 3/1/2015 by Kashmira Larkin

Yesterday, in the Abbey Theatre (the national theatre of Ireland), I saw “She Stoops To Conquer” by Oliver Goldsmith.

It was basically a comedy about a woman named Kate in rural Ireland, whose father wanted her to be married to a man called Mr. Marlow from Dublin. She is excited at this idea, but he is shy of upper class women, so she pretends that she is a maid when her half brother Tony fools him into thinking that their home is an inn.

In the end he does find out that she is the women he was supposed to go and marry and they become engaged. There was also something else going on, because Mr. Hastings, a friend of Mr. Marlow, planned on marrying Kate’s friend, Constance. They wanted to run away to France and get married. But, Tony’s mother has other ideas and wants Constance and Tony to be married to keep Constance’s inheritance (jewels) in the family.

I really enjoyed this play and it is the funniest one I have ever seen in the Abbey. All the actors were brilliant, but I think the best actor was Caroline Morahan (who played Kate), and all her facial expressions made me laugh (especially at the end when he found out who she was). There were a couple of unnecessary scenes, and I think the jewel saga dragged on for a bit too long. The stage was set up very well, the whole time it fet like I was sitting in the mansion watching things play out. I loved the music in it as well, it was like a panto for aduts!! It was, overall, a great play, and I would happily go again.

On the 2/1/15 we went to see She Stoops To Conquer (a play written by Oliver Goldsmith) in The Abbey Theatre.

The stage was set up extremely well, it was like we were actually in a mansion in the middle of the countryside. I can’t begin to imagine how much time and work goes into dressing the stage up.

The actors gave an outstanding performance, each character really showed how passionate they are about playing their character. It seemed as if the actors were actually the characters they played their whole lives and they weren’t acting. They definitely put a lot of work into practising everything and making sure they had everything spot on, and they did an amazing job.

Kate gave an especially outstanding performance, she definitely showed that she loved being on stage and that she spent such a long time practising her part. She’s such an amazing actor, she didn’t bluff once, I couldn’t have asked for a better actor to play her part!

This play was absolutely hilarious, I’m pretty sure everyone in the auditorium roared out laughing! I think that the actors made the play funnier by the way they acted their parts. I don’t have anything bad to say about the performance.

I definitely recommend that you go to see the play because it’s just brilliant for all ages and my family and I had a great night. She Stoops to Conquer is definitely a play I’d love to see again.

On Selfies

My daughter, who will be 13 in March, has been taking photographs of her own face and using them as her profile pictures on her Gmail account, her Viber account and her Skype account – changing them on a nearly daily basis. Some days, they might change several times a day. I am treated to many of these pictures via email and they always make me smile. Well, apart from the duck face ones. (Who told teenagers and young women that making their lips appear as much like a duck’s bill as possible is attractive?).

I often tell her that, were I as gorgeous as she is, I’d never stop taking pictures of myself. The selfie is much criticised at the moment. It is seen as the epitome of all that is wrong with ‘young people’; self-centred, self-absorbed, self-obsessed. But I disagree. For a start, we as parents and carers encourage our babies and toddlers to fasten their gaze upon every mirror they pass: We hand them books with mirrored pages in them, safety mirrors to play with and delight when they realise that the person in the mirror is them.

I think that looking at themselves in the mirror is a healthy thing for children to do – and have always had mirrors in the house at child-height. I think it fosters self-acceptance and bolsters self-confidence: Children get used to appreciating what they see, I think.

As parents and carers, we are constantly taking pictures of our babies and children. We love them so much and want to capture every mood, every expression, every change and many, many moments on camera. Why should we be aghast when they learn to do that for themselves? We clap with delight when they learn to put on their own shoes, dress themselves, wash their hands and a thousand other things (up to and including using the washing machine and cleaning the bathroom) that mean we have one less job to do.  So why are we not equally delighted when they learn to take photographs of themselves?

Selfie

After all, it’s not as if this generation has invented the ‘selfie’. There are pictures taken by their subjects from decades ago. In fact, if you think about it, artists have been creating self-portraits for centuries. Possibly even millennia. Who is to say that some of the cave drawings that incite such wonder and awe in us aren’t, in fact, selfies?

Shure the Famine Was Great Craic, Begob!

I woke up this morning to news that Channel 4 is planning a situation comedy about the Irish Potato Famine or An Gorta Mór (The Great Hunger), as it is known in Irish.

 

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Briefly, potato blight got to the spuds which were the main source of food for the Irish peasants at the time. There were mass evictions, with people rendered homeless or in workhouses – many believe this is why the Irish have an attachment to owning their own homes –  and our population was halved through death and emigration. Please note that it was just the potato crop that failed. Plenty of other crops grew in abundance, but they were grown for export, not the dinner tables of grubby locals, so the Irish didn’t get to taste them.

 

I’m not sure where the humour in this is, to be honest. I’m also quick to say that I’m not in the camp that blames the famine and colonialism for every Irish ill going. I know plenty of people who firmly believe that our attitudes to many things – like food, and property ownership and emigration – stem from the famine. I tell these people to get over it. Enough decades and generations have passed for the Irish of today to have realised that we’re not being starved by the British any more (we’ve elected governments instead who are well capable of starving our children and making them homeless….but I digress).

 

Still, though, I can’t deny my discomfort with the notion of an Gorta Mór being turned into something to laugh at.

 

This evening, I had a brief conversation with my children about it. Ishthara is 12 and Kashmira is 10 and I think they – being the next generation – are even further removed again from the famine than I am.  They are well-travelled and certainly more aware of the world around them than I was when I was their age. All of which led me to think that they might be a bit more blasé about it.

 

I asked the girls what they thought about the idea of Channel 4 making a sitcom about the Famine. They were both shocked, although Ishthara was more moderate. She said that they should make a pilot first and have a focus group look at it and gauge their reactions. She didn’t reject the idea out of hand as a bad one.

‘It might be funny,’ she said. ‘If they do it properly.’

Kashmira was unequivocal:

‘A British channel can’t make a programme like that. If anyone is going to make a comedy about the famine then it has to be us.’

She was adamant that a sitcom about something so huge and horrendous in our history was not in good taste.

‘But if anyone was to make it, then it has to be an Irish company – an Irish station. Like, if you make a joke against yourself, then that’s fine. But if someone else makes a joke against you, then it’s wrong.’

Ishthara was sticking to her view that things could be funny if they were done properly and that she wouldn’t judge the idea until she’d seen a pilot. If the pilot was done well, then there would be no reason (in her view) not to make the rest of the series.

Kashmira had been thinking while Ishthara had been talking:

‘If a country makes a joke against another country, then it’s racism,’ she told us.

Really? Maybe a joke is just a joke and we should take a chill pill, I suggested. Kashmira wasn’t buying it.

‘Maybe,’ I continued. ‘An Gorta Mór was long ago enough that we have enough distance to poke fun at it?’

‘No,’ was her response. ‘There’s just nothing funny about it. And it’s even less funny that a British station is doing it.’

‘What if I told you that the writer is an Irishman? Because he is.’

‘No. That’s still not right. He’s doing it for a British station. They were responsible for all the people who died and they don’t have the right to decide it’s funny.’

I asked the girls if they thought that maybe it was time to make jokes about the famine to help us get over it once and for all. I reminded them that sometimes people laugh at horrible events because black humour helps us to process things.

Is there, I asked, anything that happened that was horrible, but that it would be okay to make a comedy about.

‘Actually, I don’t think so,’ Ishthara said. ‘You wouldn’t make a joke of the Holocaust, or 9/11 or the famine in Ethiopia…’

‘But people do write comedies about things that aren’t funny – like drug addiction or dysfunctional families.’

‘Ah!’ Kashmira piped up. ‘But they are just about one person, or one family – not a whole country. And they’re not being made fun of by the people who harmed them in the first place.’

 

With that, they took their hot chocolates and their hot water bottles and headed up the wooden hill – leaving me to type the conversation before I forgot it.

 

I have to admit, I was struck by their opinions on the matter. I honestly didn’t think they would care – and I really didn’t think that someone who was born in 2004 would be so firm in her opinion about how things that happened in the 1840s should be represented in popular culture.

 

 

 

Ah here!

I’m fed up. No, really. Here we are again, with the 8th Amendment making life a misery for a family: Denying her parents the possibility to bury their daughter; denying her children the right to grieve their mother; denying her partner the right to say goodbye to the woman he loved. The sickening details of the case currently making headlines in Ireland are here.

 

We all know that if this woman had not been pregnant at the time she died, she would have been afforded dignity at the time of her passing. But this is Ireland. So forget that. This woman’s personhood is gone, but her person is being used as a vessel to maintain a foetus. How is that acceptable in a so-called ‘modern’ country in 2014? How? It’s beyond macabre. It smacks of something Josef Mengele would have dreamt up and visited upon poor unfortunates in Auschwitz.

 

In the last years of the last century, I sought help to conceive. My doctor spoke of IVF as being a last resort. He also mentioned the stigma attached to being ‘a test tube baby’. If there was stigma in Ireland attached to being a test tube baby, can you imagine the stigma that would attach to being a cadaver baby? Except, of course, this foetus is not expected to survive until viability.  So what, exactly, is the point? Well, the point is that doctors at the hospital (understandably) don’t want to be seen to be acting in contravention to the constitution. So to avoid situations like this – and this is really simple – repeal the fucking amendment that allows women to be treated like this. Seriously.

 

It’s stories like this that remind me why Ireland is such an awful place to live: We treat our most vulnerable citizens with such little respect. We have a history of cruelty to those who cannot help themselves. As a society, we tolerate the intolerable being meted out to others.

 

Actually, forget our history. Look at how we are – today, in 2014 – treating our most vulnerable. Here’s a list to get you going:

Direct Provision

People with mental health difficulties

People with learning difficulties (Aras Attracta’s )

Disabled children

Prisoners (over-crowding, slopping out in Mountjoy, lack of conjugal visits etc.)

Children in Childcare settings (remember the Prime Time investigation?)

Homeless people

Children at risk

 

And, of course, the thousands of  women in Ireland who find themselves pregnant, vulnerable and in need of abortions. I use the word ‘need’ very deliberately: I have never met a woman who wanted an abortion; but I have met many who needed them, because of the circumstances surrounding the conception, or the circumstances they were in shortly thereafter, or because their foetus had a condition that was incompatible with life. Women denied safe, legal abortions in Ireland.

 

Now, add to that list women who have the misfortune to die with a foetus inside them.  What message is this sending to our women and young girls? That are not worth as much as their male counteparts; that they cannot expected to be treated with as much dignity as their male counterparts and that the state has an interest in the contents of their wombs.

 

I have a ten year old daughter and, after the last time we went to a demonstration begging our government to hold a referendum to repeal the 8th, she thought for a bit and said ‘I think Ireland is only a good place if you’re rich and white and a man.’

 

I think she’s right.

 

 

 

 

 

Special Deliveries

Today’s post is part of the Moods of Motherhood blogging carnival celebrating the launch of the second edition of Moods of Motherhood: the inner journey of mothering by Amazon bestselling author, Lucy H. Pearce (published by Womancraft Publishing).

Today over 40 mothers around the world reflect on the internal journey of motherhood: raw, honest and uncut. To see a list of the other contributors and to win your own copy visit Dreaming Aloud.net

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I do not remember a time when I didn’t want to be a mother. It was a longing I was born with; not a desire to replicate my genes or a want to have a ‘mini-me’ that I could dress up in things I’d have liked to have been dressed up myself. No. I wanted to be a mother because I wanted to mother.  I wanted to raise children who would be loved and who would know it; children who would be happy and confident and encouraged to take their rightful places in the world.

I had always assumed I’d have at least seven or eight kids. (When I was between the ages of 4 and 12, my ideal number of offspring was fourteen – clearly I was raised Catholic!).  When I married, at 20, all I wanted was to have a baby to celebrate our first anniversary with.

Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be. It would be eight years, two husbands, three surgical operations, bucket-loads of pills, months of injections, invasive procedures and every ounce of my considerable determination before I held my baby.

The agony of being denied motherhood devoured me from the inside out. I ached, sometimes physically, for a child to call my own. My arms longed to hold a baby that they wouldn’t have to return to its rightful owner. My heart overflowed with un-shared love. Love for a child I was desperate to have, desperate to love, desperate to parent, desperate to raise. I read books on pregnancy, homebirth (having decided, by the time I was 18, that the only sensible, logical and safe option was to birth at home), breastfeeding, parenting and children. I dreamed of what it would be like when one of those infernal pregnancy tests eventually gave me the result I was looking for.

Sometimes, I would dream about holding my own baby and the dream would be so vivid that I would awake from it and still have the scent of a small baby lingering in my nostrils; would still be able to feel the silk of a tiny child’s hair on my cheek; the near-nothingness of a baby’s soft skin; the sweetness of a baby’s breath on my neck. I questioned the love of a God who could create such longing in my soul, and who could equip me with a certainty that I would be a great mother – and then deny me the fulfilment of my longing. It was analogous to creating a singer with a voice to rival that of Maria Callas, then ripping out their tongue and wiring their jaw shut. Every time I got my period – which was far from a regular occurrence – it was as though my womb was directly connected to my heart and, distressed by its own emptiness and failure, was shedding tears in synchrony with my eyes.

Poisoned by my desire I found it increasingly difficult to rejoice with people when they announced that they were expecting a baby. I got more and more resentful of others when they shared that they were pregnant – I  felt that I had been longer in the ‘conception queue’ than they had. I deserved that baby, not them. It was almost as though there was a finite number of souls who chose to incarnate in a particular year and somebody else, by getting pregnant, had snatched one of the souls that otherwise would have come to me. I could still smile to someone’s face and congratulate them. As soon as I was alone, however, I would cry tears of pain, sadness, jealousy, anger and fear. Fear that I would never fulfill my destiny to become a mother; that all the babies would be allocated to other people and I would be left without one. It felt as though my pain was bigger than I was. It was such a great thing that I was unable to contain it.

But it finally went away: On March 13th, 2002 in Pune, India, my beloved daughter, Ishthara was born. No words can express my joy when I held her in my arms for the first time. I couldn’t quite believe it. I was a mother! Finally, nestled close to me was all I had ever wanted. For some reason, love didn’t flood through me the first time I held her. I was numb. It was almost as though I was in an altered state of consciousness. I couldn’t quite grasp that she was really mine, that I was really allowed to keep her. Years later, when I was studying psychology, I read Viktor Frankl, and the experience made sense.

In his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ Frankl details how he and others were liberated from a Nazi death camp. Instead of being joy-filled and jubilant, they found themselves mis-trusting their experience; not quite believing it. Frankl explains that they had spent so long dreaming of this very moment – and had their hopes and dreams dashed so many times – that now, they were not sure they could believe it. It took the men a few days to grasp the reality that their dream had come true and was not about to be snatched from them.

On the third day, Ishthara reached her bony arm up and touched my cheek with her hand. She looked in to my eyes and I swear I saw all the knowledge of the Universe in hers. Love surged through me stronger and more overwhelming than anything I had ever known. I knew true happiness for the first time in my life. Finally, I knew what love was. I discovered a bottomless well of love that I had never thought could possibly exist – much less that it could exist inside me.

Everything about Ishthara sent joy and love surging through me – and nothing had prepared me for that. I knew I was prepared to be a parent but I wasn’t prepared for the love that being a mother brought me. I found that I instinctively knew what she needed and wanted. I found extreme joy in being with her, in responding to her needs – in pre-empting them, even. Holding her little body close to mine, keeping her body alive with mine, watching her flourish and grow and thrive filled me bliss and peace. For the first time in my life, I felt as though all was well in my world.

When I held Ishthara in my arms, and breathed in the scent of her, I felt as though I had come home to myself. It felt that I had spent my entire life preparing to hold a child I didn’t have to give back. This little splinter of God had made my biggest, greatest, grandest dream come true. She had turned me into a mother. 

Not long after Ishthara’s first birthday, I left my second husband. Then the unbelievable happened – I discovered I was pregnant. Without even trying!! How did that happen? I was shocked and delighted. I was also worried about how I would love the baby I was carrying. I had no doubt I would love her, but I loved Ishthara so much – she was the child I had always dreamt of, the child I had always longed for, and she and I had such a tremendously tight bond – that I was sure I wouldn’t possibly be able to love my second child as much. I felt sorry for her, coming into a family where she wouldn’t be loved as much as her elder sister. I couldn’t conceive that there could be enough love in the entire world – never mind in me – to love my second child the way I loved my first. 

Kashmira was born on the 18th of May, 2004. When I held her in my arms and told her I loved her for the first time – I was lying. I knew I should love her, but I felt the same way I had when I’d first held Ishthara – kind of shocked and numb and waiting; waiting for waves of love to wash over me. I fretted that this meant my fears were correct, that I would never love this child as much as I loved my other one. Three days later, however, I woke up and looked at Kashmira and a feeling of adoration for my child flooded through me. I was overcome with relief and profoundly grateful that this little person had chosen to turn me in to her mum. 

Special delivery

Pic: Ishthara and Kashmira, aged 38 and 18 months, respectively

It’s a feeling I have felt, for both my special deliveries, and the privilege of being their mother, every day since.

NaNoWriMo Update

Well, it’s November 25th and you may remember that, all gung-ho, and full of vim and vigour, I announced my participation in the NaNoWriMo project twenty-three days ago.

The premise is simple; glue your butt to your chair for an extended period every day during the month of November and produce 50,000 words at the end. You will then have the bones of a book that you can work on and edit to your heart’s content and try to shape it into an actual book that you can bring to market. Like most things worth their salt, NaNoWriMo has its detractors: Some writers claim that  it’s difficult to work like this, ‘churning out’ 2.000 words a day every day on average on one project. Others heave a sigh of relief when November comes around, safe in the knowledge that the support of the project will motivate them to get some words on a page. Still others see it as a month of indulgence to  write on a pet project, or try out a new genre – one they have never fiddled with before.

I approached NaNoWriMo with a project I’ve been wanting to work on for quite a while. I was really excited to try my hand at a bit of fiction. I’ve done a bit of plotting, I’ve gotten to know a little bit about some of my characters, I have a few set-ups for them and I have scenes written (in my head only, mind!) that had me crying in the shower as I felt the emotions of the characters involved and put words in their mouths and hearts.

So, I sat down, committed to writing my socks off and producing the required 50,000 at the end of this month.

Didn’t happen.

I have about 7,000 words of my book written. Look, it’s 7,000 words more than I had a few weeks ago, but I’m not going to nail NaNoWriMo this year. I’m not even going to start on the whys and wherefores of why I have so little done. I’m neither ashamed nor embarrassed by my lack of wordage. NaNoWriMo has served me well; I have spend the month thinking about my writing – thinking about what I want to write, what I want to focus on, what really matters. I’ve formulating a good, solid plan not just for the book I’ve written and am ready to market, but about the next one, the one after that and the spin-off work that could come from it if I market it properly.  I have looked long and hard at self-publishing rather than going the traditional route and have not decided against either (yet!). I’ve changed focus and looked at the bigger picture, the long-term and asked myself serious questions about where I want my writing to take me and what I want it to do – the purpose of it, if you will.

I’ve also been writing a bit more than usual – and remembering the joy I get from writing, how easy it comes to me if I just let it, how good it feels to structure a sentence that says exactly what I want it to and how the flow of words from brain to fingertips feels as good to me as a run in perfect weather feels to a professional runner: The exhilaration, the triumph, the purification of the exercise that release endorphins and spur you on to do more, to do it again, to keep going.

So, the end of November will come and go, and I will not be a NaNoWriMo winner. Except, in a roundabout way, I will. I’ll have a course plotted, a strategy devised and a much clearer picture of who I am as a writer. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a win.

Raising Teenagers

When she turned eleven, Ishthara told me that she was now a teenager because, in Irish, the word for ‘eleven’ translates as ‘one-teen’. Well, she’ll be 13 in March, and is fast becoming what I recognise as a teenager. Her sister, at ten and a half is not far behind. I am very happy with how we’ve managed so far; I’m proud of who my girls are and love the fact that they get on so well, and we’re generally a happy lot.  Having babies and children was easy – but now we’re on the brink of something new and I really want to ensure I don’t make huge mistakes and damage my girls at this fragile stage in their development.

 

I realised I needed help if I was going to negotiate this one. Talking to the parents of my girls’ peers is very useful, but there are certain times when something comes up and it’s not possible or appropriate to ‘phone a friend’.  I don’t have a partner and I don’t have family I can discuss raising children with, so I feel very heavily the weight of the responsibility of doing this and doing it properly. I can’t draw on my own experience of being parented because the level of dysfunction in my family of origin was such that the (then) Eastern Health Board recommended I be placed in care. My ‘mother’ refused because she was more worried about what the neighbours would say than the constant danger I was in. (Of course, the EHB could have acted anyway, and taken me away against her wishes. They have never provided a satisfactory reason why they didn’t.)

 

My girls mean the world to me and it would kill me if I damaged them to the extent that I was damaged by my ‘parents’. Doing what they did would ruin my children, but – equally – doing the opposite of something does not necessarily produce the opposite results. I truly believe that everything I need to know has been written, somewhere, by someone – I just need to find it.

 

In Hodges Figgis the other day, I went searching. The helpful assistant asked if she could help.

‘I’m looking for a book about bringing up teenagers.’

‘Do you have a particular title in mind?’ she asked.

‘Ummmm – the manual?’ I responded, a tad hopefully.

 

In the end, I parted with my pennies for ‘Flagging the Screenager’ by Harry Barry and Enda Murphy. I chose this one for a couple of reasons: It’s new (published in September of this year), it’s Irish (at the moment, I’m bringing my children up in Ireland, so I wanted something that would be relevant to the society they are currently in); and it’s endorsed by someone I know and respect and with whom I share a lot of values and thoughts on children and the rearing of them – Carol Hunt.  When I contacted Carol and told her I’d bought the book on her say-so, she was enthusiastic; reiterating that it’s a ‘brilliant book’. I felt relieved and confident with my choice.

 

Flagging-the-Screenager-Front Photo credit: http://www.libertiespress.com/shop/flagging-the-screenager

 

I will be honest – I haven’t finished the book yet, but so far, so good. I am finding that specific issues that have already come up for us are addressed in the book in a ‘real world’ way rather than a theoretical way and there are plenty of examples and illustrations from the authors’ own lives and case studies from their own practices.

 

Hopefully (with the help of this book and my other resources – including fabulous friends) my children will reach 25 as happy, healthy, positive, confident young women with good memories of growing up and becoming young women. That’s not too much to expect, is it?

 

 

 

Vent to Maintain the Status Quo

A few days ago, a frustrated mother wrote a letter to the Irish Independent. The day after, my friend the writer and broadcaster Barbara Scully wrote a reflective piece sparked by her reaction to the letter. Ralph Riegal has a piece about it, too, saying pretty much the same thing as Barbara.

 

Cue much soul searching and reflection nationwide, as Facebook and Twitter share the letter and discuss its contents. Nodding in agreement with the sentiments and situation expressed by Ms Hartnett. But here’s the thing; Nothing will change because of it. It doesn’t matter that so many of us agree and are in the same situation. It doesn’t matter that so many people feel that their children are being short-changed by this government. It doesn’t matter that so many of us can recognise this as a form of child abuse. It doesn’t matter that so many of us have our hearts broken on a daily basis because we are not able to spend as much time as we would like with our children. It doesn’t matter that so many children are deprived of quality time with their parents. It doesn’t matter that parents suffer and children suffer and we are doing who-knows-what damage to future generations because one salary is no longer enough to provide adequately for a family.

 

Ms Hartnett has vented and turned the national gaze to what we’re doing to our children and ourselves in order to bail out the banks. She has focused our attention on what is the reality for many of us. But nothing will change because of it – except, perhaps, in the lives of Ms Hartnett and her family. I applaud and support her decision to excuse herself from the rat race and wish her well, but in the full realisation that we need a shift in culture in order to effect any real and lasting change in the lives of our citizens.

 

I have said this so many times already but I’m saying it again; in Ireland, we do not value our children in this country. We do not love them enough, as a nation, to do our best for them. We do not pass laws, make societal changes and enact decisions with our children and their well-being at their core. Until and unless we do, nothing will change. A rant, a vent and a few column inches as a result do nothing to change the status quo; in fact, all they do is maintain it.

NaNoWriMo 2014

NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month – turns 15 this year. I did it for the first time back in 2004. Actually, I started it in 2004. I didn’t make it across the finish line. In hindsight, it was gloriously optimistic of me: I had just (a few weeks beforehand) moved continent and ended up in a place I hate; I had a five month-old and a two-and-a-half year old and no practical or emotional support with raising them, and I was trying hard to figure out what my Next Move would be.

So I got to about 10,000 words and left it.

This year, I’ve decided to do NaNoWriMo again. NaNoWriMo has changed in the intervening ten years. It’s now a very sophisticated affair – a slick website with FAQs, forums, discussion boards and lots, lots more. I’ve signed up because, to write consistently on a specific project, I need a prod. I’ve discovered that much about myself in all these years of writing. Whether that prod is the deadline imposed by a TV studio, a magazine or newspaper editor or a conference organiser. Or even a friend.

I wrote the first draft of my memoir with the prodding of a friend – who happened to be a newspaper editor – in India. We had a deal that I would write a minimum of 500 words a day and email them to him. If he didn’t get the words, he’d ring me to find out where they were. The strategy worked. Not least because there is a five-and-a-half hour time difference between here and India and if I didn’t turn in my words, I’d get a call at Stupid O’Clock to ask me where they were.

That book got written because I committed to writing a minimum of 500 words a day – because 500 words is easy; it’s doable. I set out to write 500 words a day, but often wrote 3,000. If I’d set myself a target of 2,000 words a day, I doubt I’d have lasted a week.

There’s an idea for a novel that has been rattling around inside me for more than two years now. Some days, I feel that if I don’t sit down and write it, I will wake up some morning and it will have written itself on my skin from the inside out. So that’s my NaNoWriMo project for this year.

I was exhausted yesterday after just 3 hours’ sleep the night before, and was sorely tempted not to write – to put it off until ‘tomorrow’. But I’ve got a writing buddy this time around. A real-life, real-world friend who has signed up as well – and there was the prod I needed. For extra pressure, Kashmira (who is not quite ten and a half) has signed up as well and she got off to a cracking start yesterday.

So I knuckled down and wrote a modest 1,123 words. I’ve started. I’ll let you know if I finish.

If you’d like to join the madness (it’s not too late!), you can sign up here.

Misogyny, Double-Standards and Witch-Hunts

As a woman, Ireland is not a great place to be. Not just because of the patriarchal hierarchy but because of the blatant denials that the patriarchal hierarchy exists in the first place. I’ve been giving this quite a bit of thought lately – not least because I am a woman and I have two daughters. I’ve also been thinking about it in the context of this workshop that I’ve designed and am offering at the end of the month.

Part of the problem with Ireland’s peculiar brand of misogyny is a constant denial that it exists. Or the mansplainers telling us that, really, we women have a grand old time of it in Ireland. For example, a doctor told me a few months ago that ‘the feminisation of medicine is a real, documented thing’. I tried to argue that, no it’s not really; that medicine is still patriarchal, but he was having none of it.

‘Look, the facts don’t lie. There are more women entering medicine than men. In a few years, a male doctor will be a rarity,’ he lamented, while with that one phrase – ‘I’m not going to argue about it with you’ – doing what the patriarchy does best, shutting women up and dismissing their arguments (or even their right to argue) while insisting on having the last word.

The problem, as I see it, with this doctor’s assertion is that more women in medicine does not a more feminised medical establishment make. Sadly. As women, we share a deep and real problem; we live in a world created by and for men. We are desperately trying to to fit into a society that values its creators – men – more than it values us. Men make the rules and we, as women, desperately try to live by them. Men create the rules we work by, the rules we play by, the rules we love by. They set the bar that we try to reach. In politics and across all professions – the standards, the expectations, and the rules are set by men.

The doctor I was talking to a few months ago had missed the point; that there are more women in a profession does not make it more ‘feminine’ or more ‘feminised’ – it just means that there are more women trying harder to play and succeed at, a man’s game. Even in so-called ‘female’ professions – teaching and nursing for example – while there may be more women in these professions, they don’t get promoted as often as men. Why? Because it’s a man’s world and we’re trying to operate within it.

Today, I’m thinking in particular about the current witch-hunt against midwife Philomena Canning.  (I think the term ‘witch hunt’ is very apt in this case as midwives were often burnt at the stake because of their women-centred care and their reputations as wise women.) So far, the best article in mainstream media was written by Michael Clifford in the Irish Examiner. You can read it here. (And, yes, I am aware that Michael is a man – but it is possible for men to be feminists!)

This is where the double-standards bit comes in: A number of mothers and children have died under the ‘care’ of the HSE recently – you can read about them here, here, here, here, here, here and here. And these are just a few of the ones that I’m aware of. Not one of the medical people involved in these cases has had their insurance revoked, their livelihoods threatened, their reputations smeared, or their practice suspended. Even though they were directly implicated in the deaths of women and/or children. Unlike Philomena Canning, who is not political, and who is passionately focused on women, babies and their care. No one has ever made a complaint about Philomena and the care she provided them and their families in her 31 years of practice. No one. Ever. In 31 years. That’s some record. Could it be that the HSE is threatened by women who put women first?

Courage in Woman is often mistaken

Germain Greer summed things up rather succinctly when she told the Irish Examiner that “Women still have very little power. They still have to become men. They can’t make real things happen for themselves in the workplace. Or it’s still extremely difficult. If they get stroppy, they’re removed. They can’t get real redress when they’re wronged. They can’t get redress anywhere.”

If you fancy doing something to support women, babies, families, human rights, Philomena Canning and the 25 women who are booked to give birth under her care in the coming 7 months, you can sign this petition. I believe there is to be a rally at the gates of the Dáil on the 8th of October, but I can’t find any details to link to, unfortunately. If you have more information on that rally, please post the in comments, or email me so I can add a link.

Update: Thanks to the lovely Heike Eberwein, I can now add that link – Rally in Support of Philomena Canning.

A First World Problem

Look, I know it’s completely a first world problem, and (truth be told) I’m slightly embarrassed to be even admitting this one, but…..

I’m not entirely sure what you’re supposed to do on holiday. Are you supposed to chill out and do nothing? And if so – isn’t that a bit of a waste? Couldn’t you do nothing at home, and save a few bob?!  Or, are you supposed to do everything that it is possible to do in the area where you are? Should a visitor to Dublin, for example, trot around every museum, every library, and set foot in to every pub with literary associations – with a side trip to Glendalough and Newgrange thrown in for good measure? Or is it enough to stroll down a few streets, pop in to a few shops and soak up the atmosphere? Is it enough just to be  in a place – or should you feel guilty if you’re not doing a place as well?

Laughing in the pool at the Hollandse Club, 1st Night

Is it enough just to be in a different place, eating food that’s a bit different and enjoying weather that’s a bit different to what you’d get at home? Or are you letting yourself down and missing a whole slew of opportunities if you’re not out biting every cherry that presents itself?  Of course, I am aware that, as we age what we want from a holiday changes, too: A gaggle of 18 year-olds in Ibiza is going to want vastly different things from that holiday than a multi-generational family in the same place. A pair of honey-mooners in Bali is also going to want different things from the island than four 19 year-olds on a gap year. But will the four 19 year-olds want the same thing as each other? Is it even reasonable to expect them to?

I don’t really have much of a history of holidays – although I’ve travelled a fair bit. As children, we were never brought abroad and holidays were a week or a fortnight in a caravan in Wexford or a house in Mayo. There, I just did pretty much what I did at home – read, went for walks and day-dreamed. The change of scenery was enough. As an adult, I’ve travelled a fair bit, but it’s usually been work-related or for extended periods, so it didn’t feel like a ‘holiday’. When I lived in Asia, trips back to Europe didn’t count as holidays, and trips anywhere else were dictated by my former husbands, so I had little say about either where we went or what we did when we got there. My girls and I have been lucky enough to travel quite a bit in the past few years, but we tend to go on city breaks and visit the museums, the galleries and a few shops in our destination cities. We’re also very lucky to have friends in a number of interesting places who open their homes to us – which means a different (lovelier) experience of a place entirely.

It’s October now, and the organised among you are already plotting where to go for a winter break or – if you’re really organised – where you’ll be next summer. But what are your plans beyond destination? Are you going to do or just be?

Pic: My girls in the pool on holiday earlier this year. 

I Can’t Believe I’m Still Protesting This Shit

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Part of me thinks there’s little point blogging about the current abortion story that is bothering Irish people at the moment. If you are unfamiliar with the salient points of the situation, you can read them here.

 

There has – rightly, in my opinion – been much outrage around how the young woman at the centre of this case has been treated. There are no winners in this situation – neither the woman nor her baby is better off because she was forced to continue the pregnancy (which was the result of rape) until 24 weeks. The woman herself has been violated in several ways and has had several of her human rights trampled on. But this is Ireland and, apparently, that’s perfectly legal.

 

The amount of violence that has been visited upon this woman’s body and psyche do not bear thinking about. The wars of a nation are waged on the bodies of women, and this is yet another example of that situation. Time and again I ask myself why Ireland hates women so much – why, as a nation, we hold them in such contempt. Last night, in conversation about this issue, someone said that it’s like living in Saudi Arabia. Sadly, in this instance, that’s not quite true: Women in Saudi Arabia (which was described by a former colleague of mine who used to live there as ‘the largest women’s prison in the world’) have access to safe, legal abortions. In this instance, women in Saudi Arabia are better off, treated with more respect, than women in Ireland.

 

So, my daughters and I will be taking to the streets again on Wednesday evening (join us if you can). We will be shouting about the need in Ireland for women’s bodily integrity to be respected. We will be demanding the laws around abortion in Ireland be changed. We will demand that the 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution be repealed.

 

I was 17 when I first marched, in Dublin, on a Women’s Rights issue. At that time, we were clamouring just for the right of women to access information regarding abortion. It seemed so ridiculous – even then – that people could be prosecuted for giving women information about how to procure a safe, legal abortion outside this jurisdiction. It is equally ridiculous now, that women still can’t access safe, legal abortions in Ireland.

 

The last referendum on abortion was in 1983. What this means is that no one under the age of 49 has voted on the issue. What that means is that  no one on whom this legislation can impact personally has had a say in the law around it. It’s time to change that. It really is.  Because, 23 years later, I can’t believe I’m still protesting this shit.

Home Schooling Mother Sent to Prison

Ishthara &Kashmira ReadingLast night, when I should have been in bed, I saw a Facebook update from a friend of mine. The update was about my friend’s friend and a woman I have known about for nearly 20 years, a woman who – on the occasions I spoke with her – inspired me.

 

Monica O’Connor was very active in the HBA for many years and is a homeschooling mother of her own children and the children she fosters. So I was really taken aback to learn that she’s due to be ‘welcomed’ through the gates of Mountjoy this morning.

 

There is a petition here that people can sign to register their support for Monica and her husband Eddie.  I can only begin to imagine how she must feel – there isn’t a bad bone in her body, yet she’s about to be criminalised by this state. There’s something wrong with that.

 

And here, I hesitate, because – and, sure, it’s semantics and maybe I should just get over myself – the introduction to the petition states:

However, the Child and family Agency under the Education (Welfare Act) 2000 deems that parents have to ‘apply’ for their children to be placed on the national register of home educators. We argue that this is unconstitutional and families should not have to ‘apply’ for a ‘right’.

 

From my reading of the Act, that doesn’t appear to be the case at all. There is no mention of ‘homeschooling’ per se in the Act. Any place  ‘other than a recognised school’  is treated the same – whether that place is the child’s home or a school set up but not (yet) recognised by the State – in terms of children who attend it needing to be registered.  It’s not about ‘applying’ for a ‘right’. It’s about applying to be registered.

 

I have homeschooled (and would do so again). I have a child who attends a place ‘other than a recognised school’ (one of my girls attends the Rye Institute one day a week during term-time). And I think it’s only right and proper that we need to register the fact that our children are being educated.  There is an onus on the State to ensure that children are being educated, and children either need to be registered in a ‘recognised’ school, or registered as receiving their education somewhere else. What registration does is ensure that someone – whether that’s the principal of a state-recognised school or the principal of a non-state-registered school – takes responsibility for the education of the child. This does not undermine the right of the parent to choose where and how their children should be educated. There is no special mention of home-schooling in the law. There is only mention of places other than recognised schools. Homeschooling is lumped in with every other type of schooling that is not ‘recognised’ as a school. So, homeschooling is treated the same as a school set up by – for example – a particular religious sect, a school set up for children of exceptional intellectual ability, a school for children who have dyscalculia, a school for children who are emotionally disturbed, a school for exceptionally talented ballet-dancers or any other type of school or learning institute someone might like to set up.

 

 

Could you imagine the outrage if people set up (say) a special yoga school, but didn’t teach anything other than yoga? Imagine the amount of outrage if people got hold of the story that children were going to school and learning nothing but yoga? Imagine the finger-pointing that would take place if you had graduates of a yoga school who couldn’t read, write, research, add etc. ? People would ask why no one from Tusla investigated the place, people would ask why the children didn’t have to register as being schooled in that particular place. If people didn’t have to register, and didn’t have their teaching tools and methods open to scrutiny, there is a possibility that children would receive no education at all.  You could have a situation where people simply ignored their children’s needs and didn’t teach them anything at all.  At least we have the right to home-educate. Some people – like the Dutch – don’t have that right at all.

 

From my understanding, Monica and her husband Eddie registered their foster children as home-schooled, but didn’t register their own children as home-schooled. For not registering their own children, they were fined €2,000 thirteen months ago. They have refused to pay the fine. For that, Monica is being imprisoned this morning.  She’s not being jailed because she homeschooled her children, she’s being jailed because she refused to pay the fine.  For the record, I think it’s a terrible thing that anyone be jailed for non-payment of a fine. I find it very upsetting to think of Monica going in to Mountjoy.  At the same time, I don’t think it’s a bad that we have to register our children as home-schooled. I don’t think it undermines our right to educate our children in line with our own beliefs and values. I think I’d rather register than not be allowed to homeschool.

 

Photo: My children, busy being educated at home

Whatever You Say, Say Nothing When You Talk About You-Know-What

Years ago, when ‘The Troubles’ as we Irish euphemistically called the bombing, shooting, maiming and intimidation that went on a daily basis here, there was a saying that if you thought you knew what was going on up North, it meant you really hadn’t a clue.

 

At the moment, I feel the same way about what is going on in Gaza. I have tried to educate myself about the situation and it’s historical roots. I have tried to figure out who is ‘right’. So far, this is what I’ve come up with: There is nothing ‘right’ about killing. There really isn’t. There can be no justification for bombing places of civilian refuge – hospitals, places of worship, schools. Two wrongs never make a ‘right’ and an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind (as Mohandas Ghandi is reputed to have said).

 

I happen to know and love people from both sides of the current conflict. Many years ago, a Palestinian friend saved my sanity. In more recent times, an Israeli friend has saved my life. Literally. I have listened to both these wonderful men talk about the conflict in the Middle East. They are both fabulous people and I am blessed to know them. But the problem is, when I hear them give their sides of the story (I don’t mean the current conflict, but when they have generously tried to educate me in general about the conflict in Israel and Palestine), I can see both points of view. I can see why my Palestinian friend wants his land back. I can see why my Israeli friend wants his land back. I can see why they both feel that they have a right to land. And I can see why neither of them has any right to be anywhere near it.

 

What I can see – what I do see – is picture after picture after picture of dead, dying, wounded, grieving, terrified men women and children. I see human beings in pain and I want it to stop. I just want the violence the terror and the trauma to stop.

 

But this isn’t about me, or how I feel, or what I wish I could do. It’s about human beings inflicting untold suffering on each other while the rest of the world wrings its hands in a practiced gesture of helplessness and forgets, completely, how it said ‘Never again’.

 

 

On Publishing

A few weeks ago, Alison Wells posted something on Facebook that made me think. When I mentioned it to Alison, she told me that I’d actually mis-read what she’d written. Never mind! What I thought she’d written made me think…. Confused yet? 🙂

 

Increasingly, I’ve been wondering what one has to do to catch the attention of a half-decent publisher. I was published for  the first time when I was 12. Since then, my work has been published in anthologies (the first when I was 17), magazines, newsletters, newspapers and (in another month or so) an academic journal. I have written for television – magazine programmes, dramas and a soap for teenagers – and I have been commissioned to write plays and musicals.

 

For the past four years or so, I have been trying to find a publisher for my book because I don’t want to self-publish. While I know there are many good reasons to go that route, there are many reasons why I don’t feel it’s the right way to go with this particular book. It’s a memoir, called Gullible Travels and (ostensibly) it deals with the 10 years I spent in Asia. I do a lot of stupid things in the book and I realised that, in order to explain why, I needed to explain where the seeds of stupidity were sown. I was adamant I was not going to write a tome of misery lit. And I didn’t. I came up with a literary device that tells the back story in a dramatic way, but without being dreary, or disturbing the narrative. The book has been edited, read by beta-readers, read by a proper editor and edited again. And then again. And then once more, to be sure, to be sure. I am very pleased with the manuscript I now have.

 

I do not have an agent and, if I’m honest, my attempts to attract one were a bit on the half-hearted side. I don’t meant that when I contacted agents I was half-hearted – far from it! Any agent I contacted I did so because they had been personally recommended to me or because I was familiar with their work and how they treat their writers. I only contacted agents with whom I felt my work and I would be a good fit. There are many agents that I’d love to work with, but they don’t represent the memoir genre (I just mis-typed ‘gene’ there – was it really a typo?!), so I’ve left them alone (save for following them on Twitter 🙂 ).  In a way, I’m lucky, because many publishers will accept unsolicited and un-agented submissions in this genre, where they won’t in others. So, really, it’s not the end of the world that I don’t have an agent.

 

I’ve approached publishers directly. Some have passed without reading a word of the book – which is fair enough. Some have asked me to send them the full manuscript – which I do with cautious excitement. In the interests of full disclosure, I was very excited the first time but after that disappointment (‘Your story is fascinating, but it doesn’t fit our current list. Good luck placing it elsewhere’), I’ve tempered my emotional reaction to a request for a ‘full’. I draw hope from the fact that no one has written back to say ‘You are delusional. You cannot write.’  or any variation on that theme. I draw hope from the fact that many, many good writers were rejected countless times before their books found homes. I am aware that this is the one project I have not shelved (I have written two other books that I couldn’t even find now on the desktop if I went looking for them!) so I feel in my gut that it has merit and I really should stick my shoulder to the wheel and work a bit harder to get it published.

 

I think part of the difficulty for me – and people like me who have not published a full book of their own work before – is that publishing is a gamble. We are asking publishers to take a gamble on our work. We are asking them to predict the future. We are asking them to know what will sell in the future based on what has sold in the past. That’s a hard thing to do. Last night, I was listening to The Green Room on Newstalk with Orla Barry. She was interviewing writer Joe Lansdale and he nailed it:

‘They get scared because it isn’t familiar,’ he said, when talking about bringing something new and fresh and different to the party.

And, for that, I can’t blame them. But I wonder what one has to do to convince a publisher that you have readers for your book? That you have people who want to read what you have written. For example, at an international conference on trauma about a month ago, I read from my memoir for the first time. I topped and tailed what I was reading with ‘academic stuff’ and then I read various extracts from the book, bridging them to reveal where I was in my history, so as not to confuse my audience.

 

The reaction was better than I could possibly have hoped for.  I spoke the final word of my 20 minute presentation. And there was silence. Now, 150 years ago, I trained as an actor, so I knew that this was a good thing. After about 3 seconds someone just went ‘Wow’. And then the applause kicked in. I was thrilled. I had given birth and my baby was not ugly.

 

Later, several people approached me and asked where they could buy copies of the book. Those were squirmy moments for me when I had to admit that, actually, they couldn’t because it wasn’t published. This was met with disbelief.

‘Why ever  not?’ one therapist asked.

‘Are they afraid?’ asked another, bluntly.

I had no answer. I still don’t.

These delegates – therapists, counsellors, doctors, mental health professionals and academics – wanted to read my book for themselves, but some also wanted to offer it as ‘bibliotherapy’ to their clients. They really believed that my book would help their clients and passionately wanted to get their hands on it. I had to disappoint them.

More than one person has said to me that I am just ahead of my time, and because of that, I make people uncomfortable. Now, I don’t think I’m a maverick or a trail-blazer or a thought-leader. I do think, however, that I have written a book that could be very useful to a certain cohort of people, and very entertaining to another.

 

A few weeks ago, I happened to be talking about the book with a young woman who works in the theatre and is in her late twenties. I was musing about the possibility of turning (part of) Gullible Travels into a play. Her enthusiastic response was:

‘Please do! I’d go and see it!  And I’d love to read the book, as well. Will you keep me up-dated?!’ I was surprised that she’d be interested in the content. I was wrong. It clearly struck a chord with her. Similarly, it has struck a chord with a man who survived Belsen (he was in tears listening to me read and he thought it was fiction). 

 

So I have people who want to read my book, it has been trialled on real live people who thought it was worth reading/listening to and I am happy to do whatever I can to promote it. I just don’t know what to do to get the attention of a publisher. Maybe I should make a video of me reading from my book and stick it up on You Tube?  Maybe I should say that, if you’re a publisher and you’re reading this, I’m a safe bet. There are more than just my three best friends who want to read Gullible Travels. I already have an international audience waiting to read the book (or listen to it on audiobook!).  Or maybe I should just upload the thing as a PDF here (with a paypal button beside it!) and let whoever wants to read it go right ahead? 🙂

 

If you have thoughts, comments or advice, please pop them in a note below. Thanks!

Garth Brooks

Honestly, I couldn’t care less if Garth Brooks plays one night or twenty or none. I completely respect that he’s a talented musician, but I don’t like his music, so I wouldn’t be going to see him. Nor do I live anywhere near Croke Park, so the concerts would not impact on my life at all. The most impact I can imagine these (proposed) concerts would have on me would be that, were I in the city centre before or after a gig, I might see more people with ten-gallon hats and cowboy boots than usual. That’s it. That’s the sum total of the impact it would have on me.

 

Garth Brooks and his (proposed) concerts in Dublin are under huge discussion in the Irish media at the moment because a licence was not granted for all five of the proposed gigs. The tickets themselves were bought and sold with the caveat ‘subject to licence’. The promoter didn’t even apply for the licence until April – two months after the tickets had gone on sale. Dublin City Council deliberated over the granting of the licence and decided that – based, in part,  on the objections of residents of the area (and let’s not forget that Croke Park is slap-bang in the middle of a residential area) – they were only going to grant a licence for three of the five days.

 

Then Garth Brooks himself weighed in and said he couldn’t choose which of the dates to play “To choose which shows to do and which shows not to do, would be like asking to choose one child over another.” Well, don’t worry your pretty little head about that, Garth – Dublin City Council has made that decision for you. You don’t actually get to decide. The Council has granted a licence for the Friday, Saturday and Sunday night gigs. The Monday and Tuesday ones have been axed.

 

Garth Brooks then told anyone who was interested that it was ‘five gigs or none’. Playing ‘just’ three nights wasn’t acceptable. What a spectacular spitting of the dummy! It’s his ball and he’s taking it home.

 

As I said earlier, I couldn’t care less if Garth Brooks never sets foot in Ireland again. The man, his music and his musings have absolutely no relevance to my life. I have no skin in this game. What I do have, however, is a concern for the fact that this man seems to be having a problem with his memory! He seems to have no recollection that, initially, he was only going to play two nights in Dublin. Then, due to the fact that the tickets for those nights sold out in something like 0.07 of a second ( I exaggerate, but only slightly), the performer and his team generously offered another night. They kept offering extra nights until they had reached the magic number of five.

 

So, this is the bit that has me puzzled – if, initially, he was only going to play for two nights but then managed to offer the Irish public five, why is he so upset that Dublin City Council is ‘only’ granting permission for three gigs? I mean, if I agreed to work for someone for two days and then they said they needed me for five, and then they revised that figure and said, actually, they only needed me for three, I’d still see it as a win.

 

Clearly, I’m not rich or famous enough to understand how being offered work for three nights when you’d initially only planned to work for two is a bad thing. I must be one of those friends in low places I believe he sings about….

Progress Report

Kindness-cat-and-bird-150x150

 

Yesterday, I was on Talking Point with Sarah Carey on Newstalk. The talking point was mental health, and I was there in my capacity as an ambassador for See Change.  If you’re interested, you can listen here.

 

The programme was pre-recorded on Friday which, it turns out, is probably just as well because yesterday was a really bad day for me. It started with some bad news on Friday night.  Okay, it was a bit more than ‘bad’. It was so bad that someone  emailed to say they were devastated to hear it. Imagine how I felt?

 

Immediately, I went down the road of

‘It’s because I’m not good enough.’

‘It’s because I’m shit.’

‘It’s because all my ideas are crap.’

‘It’s because I was an idiot to expect that this would work out for me.’

‘It’s because no matter how hard I work, nothing good comes of it.’

‘This is how my life always is. It is shit now. It always was shit. It will always be shit.’

‘I should stop expecting things to get better.’

‘No matter what I do – and I do a lot – my life will never improve.’

‘I would be better off killing myself now.’

‘Wouldn’t I be better off killing myself now? Then this would all end. No more disappointment.’

And so it went for a few hours.

 

Then, I took myself off to bed. Not because I felt sorry for myself, but because it was the safest place for me. I retired. I decided to give myself a day off from problem solving. I decided I didn’t have to sort the entire problem out there and then. I had enough to do just minding myself. I allowed myself to do that.

 

Early (5.30am early!) on Saturday, a really good friend of mine gave me a call. He’s in another time zone and knows I get up early, so it wasn’t unusual. I’d sent him an email the night before – a two-liner to let him know what had happened and he rang to see how I was doing, to offer support and to remind me that I am not alone.

 

He didn’t ask me what I was going to do now, he didn’t ask me what my next strategy was, he didn’t berate me for ever thinking this particular piece of bad news would never come. Instead, he told me ‘I don’t think you realise how successful you already are. I don’t think you give yourself credit for how much you have done – and for how much you continue to do.’

 

Instead of asking what I was going to do for the next five years, he asked what my plans for the rest of the day were. I had planned on going to the Excited conference in Dublin Castle, but had decided not to bother.  In the course of the conversation with my friend, however, I changed my mind again and went to the conference.  My mood dipped, however, and by the time we were on the road, the reality of my situation hit me again and I was overwhelmed. I told myself I’d  stay at the conference for two hours. And managed to stay for five.

 

Back home, I returned to bed. I was exhausted. Drained mentally and emotionally from the bad news and the knocking it had given me. I tweeted that I was retiring and received gentle concerned messages from people. They said they were there for me, and I knew they meant it. I knew I had people who would listen if I needed to talk. At the same time, I was pretty sure that a good night’s sleep would help.

 

And it did. I’ve taken it easy today and – apart from cooking – have done very little. I’ve been a little down, but not suicidal. I’m feeling much better. I’ve changed perspective slightly and seen that I have choices – I always have choices, even if I don’t always immediately see what they are. ‘Hidden in plain sight’ is one of my favourite concepts and often that’s where my answers are .

 

The reason I’ve shared this with you is to make the point that recovery is possible; your mental health doesn’t always have to spiral; doesn’t have to follow the same turbulent path. What always was doesn’t always have to be. I helped myself by realising that there were elements I could control, things I could do to help myself.

 

The first thing I did was be kind to myself. I can’t do much about what other people say to me – but I can absolutely control what I say to myself. So, I stopped with the berating messages in my own head. It helped.

 

I chose the people I shared my bad news and my consequent frame of mind with. I didn’t go looking for people to (metaphorically) beat me up – as I would have previously.

 

I no longer take my woes to people who will reinforce the negative. I used to. For years, there were people in my life who fed me those lines and started those beliefs in me in the first place. They reinforced those beliefs the entire time I was in touch with them and freeing myself from those people has freed me from being told terrible things about myself all the time.

 

So, because I no longer hear those words externally, I don’t have to listen to them internally anymore, either. If I find myself thinking ‘I am worthless’ I question that. I choose whether or not to believe it. Of course, sometimes I will believe it. But I believe it for a shorter period of time.

 

Sometimes, part of deciding whether or not we believe something is to test its validity externally – by asking other people (directly or indirectly) what they think. These days, I surround myself with supportive people (not people who always tell me I’m right, but people who see my value and support my growth).

 

Set-backs, disappointment, fear, worry and heartache will always be a part of life, and I know that. But I’m getting better at dealing with those situations. Not everything is the end of the world. Not everything is the end of my world. I have always been skilled at problem-solving, but I no longer expect myself to have an immediate solution and I am prepared to give myself the down-time I need to feel better without the voice in my head excoriating me for ‘wallowing’.

 

When’s the last time you were kind to yourself?

 

Weeding for Mental Health

It’s May. So it’s Mental Health Awareness Month. As a See Change ambassador, I try to make at least one post in the month of May that deals with mental (ill) health. By the skin of my teeth, here is one for 2014.

 

Yesterday, an interview I gave appeared in the Irish Times. Now, it might seem a bit daft, but sometimes I forget that people read the paper. More to the point, I forget that people I know read the paper! Then I’m a bit stunned when they refer to something I’ve said in a piece I’ve written, or been interviewed for. To be honest, reaction to my pieces has always been kind, but the reaction to this piece has been overwhelming.

 

One of my oldest and dearest friends shared it on her FB page and, via that share, I got a slew of messages from people I’d been at school with, people I hardly knew and people I know quite well.  They were all generous, supportive and from the heart.  Three parents spoke to me at the school gates today – with another running up to me as I was stopped at traffic lights – to say they’d read the piece and to share kind comments.

 

So then I got to thinking about friends and how they sustain us.

 

A few years ago, I started to worry about myself. I worried that I was becoming selfish, unkind and harsh. I worried that I was becoming judgmental (a trait I really hate to see in myself) and intolerant. Why? Because I was ending friendships and relationships and I thought it reflected badly on me. In the space of a year, I had managed to turf two people out of my life whom I had regarded as friends. I was uncomfortable with myself. I thought it meant I was A Bad Person.

 

Gradually, it dawned on me that, instead of falling out with them, I was falling in with myself. I was making a stand and saying ‘no more’. I was seeing unacceptable behaviour and calling it for what it was for the first time ever. I was telling people that I could no longer be treated badly and take it. I was saying ‘I deserve better’.  Of course it felt uncomfortable. Doing anything for the first time feels uncomfortable. Especially when it is against all that you have been told is ‘good’ and ‘right’ and ‘acceptable’.

 

Sometimes, though, you have to put yourself first.

 

Part of that was choosing my friends and not feeling obliged to maintain ties with people who were damaging – or even people who took me for granted.  I was astonished at how much better I felt. Suddenly, I had more energy, I felt better, I had less angst. I was able to follow my dreams without worrying about having my ideas (and, by extension, myself) knocked, ridiculed or torn apart.

 

These days, I surround myself with wonderful people. People who are kind and generous and thoughtful. People who share my fundamental values – even if we come from different backgrounds, religions and generations.  They don’t always agree with me – but they always respect me.

 

Weeding out the people from my life who were toxic, destructive and abusive (even if that abuse was just unkindness and/or taking unfair advantage of me) has been a huge gift to myself. Being around people who think I’m all right has done wonders for my mental health. It wasn’t easy to start with, but – like so many other things – it has become easier with practice.  I’d highly recommend it. 🙂

Children First? Don’t Hold Your Breath.

Yesterday, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs was delighted to announce the publication of the Children First Bill.

There was much self-congratulation as Minister Frances Fitzgerald and her department tried to tell us how this would make life so much easier for children in Ireland.

Well…..I’m calling bullshit.

The new act is a toothless instrument of the law. It’s all very well to say that reporting is mandatory; but if there are no sanctions against those who choose not to report, then what good is such a mandate?

I would suggest that a change in the culture is what’s needed before we can hope for a law that actually makes a difference. Naively, you might question what kind of person would choose not to report a crime of abuse against a child? Surely, if a person- particularly a person in authority – knows (or even suspects) that  a child is being abused, that person would report it? Even without a law dictating that they should? You might think that, but I recently got sight of documents which blow that theory right out of the water.

I do think those involved should be named and shamed – but have been advised against so doing for the time being. (Patience was never my strong point. This is a hard lesson for me).

Without naming names, then, let me give you the broadstrokes:

In the early 1990s, a woman (let’s call her Deirdre, because that’s not her name) was in her mid-teens. She was being treated at a centre for the effects of sexual abuse. During this time, the psychiatrist under whose care she was (lets call her Dr C), asked Deirdre if she was still being sexually abused. Deirdre revealed that her father was still sexually abusing her.

What did this doctor do? Did she call the Gardai? No. What? Not even anonymously? No. What she did was seek a meeting with the paedophile in question. At this meeting (documented by the doctor herself), she confronted him with the information she had regarding the allegations Deirdre had made. Did he deny abusing her? No. Sure why would he? What he did, instead, was tell Dr C that ‘there (was) nothing sexual’ about his sexual abuse of this child. Instead, he averred, he was doing it ‘to comfort’ her because he was aware she had been sexually abused by other people as well. Doctor C’s response? She told him to ‘be more sensitive’.

I mean, seriously, what does that amount to? Isn’t that the same as saying ‘Rape her more gently’?!

Of course, you can say that this is a case of historic abuse, and no one would behave in such a way in this day and age. If you did say that, I would like to agree with you.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t. When these documents surfaced (as the result of an FOI request Deirdre made), Deirdre met with a representative of the centre where she had been ‘treated’ (Dr C was on holiday – though she still works in the centre).  Dr C’s colleague confirmed that, were the same set of circumstances to arrive in front of Dr C today, she would act in precisely the same way because that is the policy of the centre. To do otherwise would be a ‘breach of confidentiality’.

What does this tell you? It tells me what I already know:  Children don’t come first in this country. We do not have a culture (yet) that puts children at the top of the pile. We do not have a society that cherishes, protects and loves its children. Every time I say that, people (women, usually) respond indignantly telling me how much they love their children. Sure, individuals among us may cherish our own personal children – but what about the snotty child at the end of the road, whose parents are drug addicts? Do you love that child? Really? Would you step in to help that child if he or she were being hurt? Would you? Would you really?

We, in Ireland, do not have a culture that views children as precious. We really don’t.

No law will make any difference if there are no sanctions against those who do not obey it. It is ludicrous to suggest otherwise. And, unfortunately, no law will make any difference if the cultural attitudes of the nation enacting it are not in-step with the letter and the spirit of that law.

Outrageous!

As women, we are socialised to believe that anger is a less than feminine emotion. Dismissing a woman as ‘angry’ is akin to dismissing her as ‘hysterical’. Angry women are ugly women. They are deeply unattractive on many levels – physically, spiritually and intellectually.

 

Believe me, I have had occasion to spit fire more than once in my life and while anger is often justified, it is seldom ‘pure’: Anger is generally where we end up, emotionally, when things don’t turn out the way we want or expect them to. Anger is tinged with fear, frustration, betrayal, and any number of other emotions.

 

Outrage, on the other hand, is magnificent.

Whenever I am outraged, I feel called to action. Outraged people are, I feel, the only people who actually change anything. Outrage is what propels us to call out bad behaviour – whether that’s on the part of an individual, a society, a corporation or a government.

 

When I am outraged, I do not experience the paralysis of anger. My anger is turned inward, but my outrage is turned outward and it causes me to fight for change; whether that change is agitating to have a child-trafficking organisation closed down (which I did in 2008), removing my children from school (which I did three years ago), or even just changing my own last name (which I did, legally, when I was 16).

 

When I am outraged, I confront injustice and call it by its name. When I am outraged, I can bide my time and work to achieve the best outcome for all involved. When I’m angry, on the other hand, I find that I act impetuously. When I act from a place of anger, I don’t usually cover myself in glory. Outrage, on the other hand, sees me at my empowered best. I feel bigger – like I am inhabiting more space – when I am acting from a place of outrage. I feel my voice is louder and my words are truer.

 

Anger feels red-hot.

Outrage feels white-hot.

Anger feels impotent.

Outrage feels potent.

Anger entangles.

Outrage liberates.

 

I’ve had a few thoughts on forgiveness lately, too – but that’s a whole other blog post.

 

 

 

Being Gay and Breastfeeding

In recent weeks, I’ve had a few messages from people who follow this blog wondering – variously – if I’m dead, if I’m stuck for something to say, or if I’ve stopped writing.

I’m happy to report that I’m no deader than usual, I’m definitely not stuck for something to say and I certainly haven’t stopped writing. I have been writing – I’ve done (another) final edit of the book; started volume two; jotted down a few thousand words for a work of fiction as well as a few ideas for a radio play that’s been knocking around inside my skull for a few months. I’ve been writing for the Gifted Ireland website and I’ve been doing a bit of academic writing as well (oooh! Get me! 🙂 ). There are even several drafts of posts that I’ve started, but haven’t finished for various reasons….but enough of this ‘dog ate my homework’ stuff, let’s crack on.

For the past four weeks, Ireland has been having a national conversation about homophobia. For those of you who don’t live on this island, let me give you a brief outline:

Rory O’Neill has this wonderful, funny, alter-ego; the amazing Panti Bliss. On a (fairly awful) programme on Saturday night four weeks ago, Rory alluded to homophobes in the public eye. He was pushed to name names, and he did. Within days, RTE (the broadcaster responsible for the programme) had received solicitors’ letters and decided to pay eighty-five thousand euros to those named individuals. An apology was also issued (though, so far, Rory hasn’t received one).

Later, Panti Bliss was invited to The Abbey Theatre (the world’s first national theatre) to answer the Noble Call*. What she said was stunning:

Yesterday (February 9th), Rory spoke to Miriam O’Callaghan on the radio. He spoke about what it’s like to be a gay man in 21st Century Ireland.

‘The time that I’m most jealous of straight people,’ Rory told us. ‘Is when I am with a boyfriend and I am walking down the street and the most natural, ordinary thing in the world is to hold his hand, or put your arm around him. The way couples do….the way we see straight couples on the street every single day, so often that you don’t notice…’

Rory went on to explain how, even if you’re a very out, very proud, very confident gay man in the most comfortable arena possible for being gay – the Men’s Department in Brown Thomas’s – being affectionate can be difficult:

‘Even then, it is different for a gay couple.’ he says, because even then, it still feels like it is not a normal sign of affection.

‘It feels like you’re making a political statement,’ Rory continues. ‘You’re forced into it being this big gesture. It’s not just about you. It’s not a small private thing between you and your boyfriend. It becomes this political statement. And even nice people in BT’s, who want to say “oh isn’t that nice – look at the gay couple holding hands”, they’ve turned your private moment into this public moment because they’re being supportive and nice but it just means that your private moment isn’t a little private moment, it’s on display…’

Now, I am probably the furthest thing you could get from a gay man but suddenly I understood. I knew what Rory was talking about. I was no longer sympathising – I was empathising. Suddenly, I got it.

It might sound odd, to draw parallels between a gay couple kissing in public and breastfeeding in public – but I’ve had the same experience with a hungry (or tired or generally discombobulated) baby. I’ve had what should have been a private experience politicised and commented upon. I’ve had people sit not two metres away from me and discuss that I was feeding my child as though I was deaf, as though I didn’t understand English, and as though they had every right to discuss, and have an opinion on, what I was doing.

I’ve had people gawp in disbelief – not so much when the baby was only a few months old, but definitely when she was one or two or three (by the time she was four, we no longer breastfed in public). I’ve had people (young women, usually) make known their disgust that I was using my breasts for the precise job they were created for.

Like a kiss between lovers, breastfeeding your baby or child is more than a physical act – it is an expression of love. There’s an intimacy to it – even when it’s automatic.  I’ve had people smile warmly and even give me a thumbs up when I’ve been feeding my baby. I’ve had perfect strangers go out of their way to let me know that they ‘approve’. It feels a lot better than the disgust – and it’s lovely to have people’s support and to have them being nice – but it still feels like they need to make a point about how ‘accepting’ they are of your ‘oddness’.

I now have a much better understanding of how it feels to be a gay man in twenty-first century Ireland. It feels like being a breastfeeding mother in twenty-first century Ireland. Thanks, Rory, for sharing your gift of communication and helping me understand how you feel every time you feel you need to check yourself.

 

* In Ireland, at a party a noble call is when it’s your turn – to sing, recite or otherwise entertain. You can’t refuse. You can plead neither illness nor insanity. You must perform. The recent play at the Abbey ‘The Risen People’ (which dealt with the 1913 Lockout) had a Nobel Call performed by a different person whose own story bore relevance to the broad themes of the play.

A Note From Jimmy Carter

Today is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

 

I’m not going to bang on about my own experiences of violence, or those of women I have encountered in my personal and professional life. I am not going to draw from my current research and highlight how  obstetric practices leave many women feeling as though the events surrounding the births of their babies was similar to rape. No – for a change, I’m not going to get on my soap-box about anything. I’m going to let a man do the talking.

 

I know, I know, not like me at all, right? But – every now and again, I have the joy and the privilege of encountering a man who gets it. A man who understands how life is profoundly different for women simply because we are women; a man for whom this doesn’t sit right and a man who desperately wants to change it. A man who (gasp!) is a feminist. Usually, these men are friends of mine who have a very fine grasp of how women and men are equal, just different. Today, however, it was the words of former US President, Jimmy Carter that caught my eye.

 

I’m going to sit for a minute now, conjuring up in my imagination what the world would look like if the need for a day dedicated to the elimination of violence against women was unnecessary.

 

 

Cutting Your Cloth

Years ago, my life was very different.  When a friend of mine came to visit, we’d start off with a good gossip over a mani-pedi at my local “beauty parlour”. Then, we’d go out for lunch and continue our chatting. 

 

After lunch (which would probably include a glass or two of wine), we’d indulge in a spot of shopping at a local market  shopping mall before heading somewhere for dinner. The following morning, after breakfast, my friend would head to the pool while I’d get some work done. Depending on how quickly I got through my work, I’d either join her at the pool after lunch, or we’d go to a bar and listen to some music. Sunday brunch in the Ritz or the Conrad was always a given.

 

If my friend was staying for more than a week, we’d fly to Thailand or Vietnam or take a ferry to a small island. Even if we didn’t make it that far, we’d always manage a day in the outlet stores in Malaysia.

 

We were living a life of privilege and we knew it.

 

Now, circumstances have changed. The closest I get to a mani-pedi is buying a new emery board in Boots. Champagne brunch is something I have pictures of – and a few corks kept for nostalgia’s sake. The house I’m in now doesn’t even have a paddling pool. My passport expired last week and I didn’t panic and/or grit my teeth as I applied for an emergency one – because I’m not going overseas anytime soon.

 

When my friend comes to visit, all meals will be home-cooked and eaten at home. If there is any wine, it will be from the supermarket – and then, only if it’s on special offer. We may all pile into my car and go to Galway for a day out, but that’s only If I can afford the petrol. We will still enjoy each others’ company. We will still chat. We will still laugh. We will still reminisce. We will still dream.

 

My point? Dr Tom Cloonan asked this question on Twitter this morning:

I’m fairly sure we all know the answer. There’s no way the Troika members will be staying in budget accommodation, while terminally ill children have their medical cards taken from them. If my friend arrived here and expected me to fly to the South of France with her for the weekend and expected me to starve my children for a week in order to do so, I think I’d have a few stern words with her.

 

The Troika is happy to march in here and tell us what we should be doing with our money, but seems to have no understanding that in our time of financial difficulty we need to cut back on everything. Everything. Including our hospitality spend.  Including  our hospitality spend on them.

 

 

Lock up Your Daughters (And Your Sons)

The Irish and international media has been reporting, in the past few days, on two cases this week where children were removed from their families and put into the ‘care’ of the Health Services Executive. Thousands of children are taken from their families in Ireland every year and put into care – and there is very little outcry from either the media or the general public.

These two cases, however, were different because the families were Roma and they children were blonde. Because of their colouring, it was assumed that their dark-haired parents could not possibly be their ‘biological’ parents. The Gardai became involved after a member of the public posted the following message on the Facebook page of a TV3 journalist:

According to reports, up to 20 Gardai arrived at the house to take the child into the ‘care’ of the HSE.

In an attempt to prove their child was, in fact, theirs, the parents of the  little girl in Tallaght offered her passport and her birth certificate. The Gardai weren’t satisfied with these documents: It is unclear why they doubted the veracity of the birth certificate, but the passport was on old one and the photograph was of a baby. We are told a member of An Garda  Siochana rang the Coombe Women’s and Children’s Hospital, where the couple claimed the baby had been born, but the hospital was unable to confirm holding any record of the birth. So the child was removed from the family home until DNA tests could prove whether she was, indeed, where she belonged (i.e. with her parents and siblings).

Every time I hear a story of a parent losing a child – whether through death, abduction or any other way – my imagination inserts me and my kids into the narrative. This story was no different. I wondered what would do if the Gardai arrived to take one, or both, of my kids from me.  It could happen.

Imagine if one of my neighbours or someone who knows me and knows where I live, decided to get the hump with me and reported me to the Gardai on similar grounds as the Roma family was reported: That I have children who are not of the same colouring as I.  This is a fact. My girls have Indian dads. In the event that the Gardai ‘acting on a tip-off’ arrived at my house (a house I haven’t been living in for as long as this Roma family has been living in theirs), I  could produce passports for my children:  But the passport I have for my eldest is 10 years old (she got one of the last ten-year passports issued to a child in 2003), and she’s not quite two years old in the photograph. My other daughter has a more recent passport, but you could debate whether or not it is she in the picture.

As for birth certificates – I have both of them in the house, but they are laminated (one was handed to me that way in Singapore when I registered the birth, the other, I was advised to have laminated ‘for safety’).  Now, it’s a little-known fact, but a laminated document is not, legally speaking, an original document in Ireland. So, on a technicality, a Garda could refuse to accept the veracity of the birth certificates I have for my children.

I suppose they could call the hospitals where the girls were born – except my girls weren’t born in hospitals. There is no dad for the authorities to call and check my version of events with, either. I don’t have contact details to provide and India is very big place if you’re looking for someone. Also, checking with the authorities where my girls were born (India and Singapore, respectively) could be time-consuming. There is a five-and-a-half-hour time difference between here and India, and an eight-hour time difference between here and Singapore. This means that in this nightmare scenario, if my children were taken after 9am, we’d be apart for at least 24 hours. By which stage, I’d be driven mad with grief and fear and worry. And I’m sure my kids wouldn’t be far behind me in the traumatised stakes.

If the word of a member of the public and the fact that your child has different colouring to you is enough to have your child taken from you by several members of the police force, then maybe I have every reason to be worried. Unless, of course, the lessons that Alan Shatter says ‘might’  be learnt from this frightful episode, are actually learnt.

Mind Yourself

Today is World Mental Health (awareness) Day and I was honoured to appear on TV3’s Midday programme (you can see it here – from 13 minutes in), talking to Sybil Mulcahy about my own experiences. It was a short interview (about 3 minutes) so I didn’t say a lot!! I was also interviewed for The Five-Thirty – news round up on the same station.

 

Tonight, I’m taking my girls to see ‘Box of Frogs’ in the hope that it helps normalise the discussion of mental health. And also, to be completely honest, because I know and love the actors in the play.

 

Earlier this week, I was privileged to meet with the Chair of the Expert Group to discuss new capacity and mental health legislation. This was the final element in the body of work I worked on with Amnesty International. So, it’s been a good, and busy week from the mental health point of view.

 

Today is a good day. I feel useful – and for me, that’s key to my own sense of well-being. My girls are well and happy and nothing nasty has arrived in the post, by phone or by email. I have lovely plans for tonight. I’m on an even keel. I know that it would take very little to tip the scales in the wrong direction. I know that it wouldn’t take much to knock the wind out of me completely – but I’m not dwelling on that possibility. I am, instead, dwelling on the fact that today, all is well. Today has brought me nothing I can’t handle. Today is filled with love and friends and brightness and coziness and good food and laughter and happy children.

 

Those of us who have mental health issues aren’t defined by them – any more than a person with asthma is defined by their asthma. Like asthma, mental health issues can be controlled and they don’t affect you every day. Our mental health difficulties don’t manifest every day – there are good days as well as bad days. There are fantastic days as well as terrible days. There are days filled with love and joy and peace, as well as days filled with fear and pain and despair.

 

People with asthma are advised to be aware of their triggers; to avoid them whenever possible; to take action as soon as a trigger becomes apparent and to give themselves enough time to recover after an episode. In the same way, those of us with mental health issues (and I believe that’s everyone) would do well to be aware of our triggers, to avoid them whenever possible, to take action as soon as a trigger becomes apparent and to give ourselves enough time to recover after an episode.

 

Mind yourself!

 

 

No Clout

This morning, The Irish Examiner broke the story that The Children’s Rights Alliance is renewing its call on the Irish government to ban the smacking of children.Here’s the thing; such pressure should not be necessary. There should be no reason for the Children’s Rights Alliance – or anyone else – to write to the Minister for Children asking her to ban violence against our youngest citizens.

 

Ireland signed up to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1992. I wrote about what that means – or should mean to us – here.

 

Remember the Children Referendum last November? Remember how I took the unpopular position of opposing it because it didn’t go far enough? Remember the points I made about Article 19?

Here’s a reminder:

Article 19 of the UNCRC says:

“States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social  and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.”

 

Maybe I’m just a bleeding-heart liberal (I don’t think so), but isn’t smacking a form of physical abuse? I think so. I very much think so. If you smacked another adult – you would deemed to have committed assault. So, why is it acceptable in Ireland today to hit a child? It was outlawed in schools before I even started primary school – so if it’s not okay for teachers to hit children, why is it okay for parents to?

th_wooden-spoon

 

 

 

 

The bottom-beater of choice of many Irish parents

If we signed up to the UNCRC 21 years ago, why have we done so little to change our laws to bring them in line with the Articles of the Convention? Why, in 2013, are we still debating whether or not it’s okay for big people to hit little people?

Photo Credit: Photobucket  http://i773.photobucket.com/albums/yy17/holidaypupexpress/12-wooden-spoon.jpg

More Kite Flying?

It’s that time of the year when the Irish government indulges in the sport of kite-flying. Unlike Makar Sankranti, however, there’s little pleasant about the sport as played in Ireland.

Charged with the unenviable task of shearing millions from their budgets, the ministers of various departments ‘leak’ money-saving ideas to the media.  Then – based on the reactions of citizens – they gauge whether or not the cuts they are proposing in these leaks will be easy to implement. If the public outcry is deafening, the minister will quietly shelve the ‘kite’.

Kite flying isn’t just for Ministers, though. Any TD can get in on the act by suggesting cost-cutting measures.

Today’s kite was even less well-thought out than they usually are. Independent TD Denis Naughten has suggested that the government could save millions by scrapping the Child Benefit Payment and, instead, introducing a ‘School Attendance Payment’.

On the face of it, it might seem like a good idea – put paid to truancy and stop the flow of money out of the country in the form of child benefit at the same time. The article in today’s Journal  suggested that the European Commission might have a problem with any tampering with CB in order to deprive migrant workers of the payment.

 

I see a bigger problem with it, though. If you only pay child benefit to parents of children who attend school, you’re ignoring the fact that children don’t have to be sent to school in order to be compliant with the law in Ireland. Parents have a constitutional right, under Article 42, to educate their children where they see fit.

 

Of course, that could be circumvented by ‘allowing’ parents who register to homeschool to keep their Child Benefit payment. But – it can take a while to register and be approved. What are parents who rely on the payment to assist with household bills to do in the intervening months?

 

Then, of course, there’s the fact that Child Benefit is payable from when the month after a baby’s born. If the payment is to be linked to school attendance, and children don’t legally have to be in formal education until they are 6 – what happens to payments for the first six years? Are they to be abandoned? Or is Mr Naughten proposing that the payment be made for the first six years and then parents must re-apply? Can you imagine the chaos? The disruption? The upset to families who rely on the payments? Not to mention the extra administraion required?

 

Linking the payment to school attendance also means that home-schooling parents would lose out on child benefit – the same way they currently lose out on dental, optical and other health check-ups that are administered through schools.

 

Paying Child Benefit only to parents whose children attend school is one kite that simply won’t fly – no matter how much money it might potentially save.

Austerity Bites Gets A New Home

For those of you who only pop by here for the Austerity Bites series, I am delighted to tell you that Austerity Bites has a new home.

While I initially thought I’d only blog about food and cooking for six days, I found I enjoy it so much, I really want to continue.  From now on, my recipes and musings on food can be found at http://www.austeritybitesblog.wordpress.com

Come on over!

10 Lies Women Hear in Irish Maternity Hospitals

Women in Ireland are, finally, realising that they have – for the longest time – been sold a pup when it comes to how they are treated with regard to maternity care in this country.

For as long as I can remember, I have had an interest in mothering, maternity, babies and birth. Before I’d even turned 18, I was sure I would not give birth in a hospital. By the time I was 20 and trying to conceive a baby with my first husband, I was doing more and more research on the subject and learning more and more about ‘normal’, ‘natural’ and what they should look like.

Years later, after the birth of my second daughter, I became a doula and my outrage at the lies women were told increased to the point that I needed to watch my blood pressure.

I operate from a belief that birth and pregnancy are normal, everyday occurrences. In more than 80% of cases, there is no need for intervention and women can safely birth their babies without interference from outside forces. The problem is that birth has become medicalised.

Doctors are wonderful people.  They do tough jobs in difficult circumstances. The problem with doctors being involved in birth, though, is that they are trained in the abnormal. They come to your bedside believing that there is something wrong with you – and then they set about finding that problem. If there is no problem, they need to invent one.

Hospitals are designed around the medical model. They are set up to save the health and lives of people whose health and lives need saving. They are not set up to watch and wait – which is what normal birth requires. And normal birth is what most women will experience if they and their bodies are trusted.

In order to coerce women to submit to unnecessary medical intervention, they are routinely lied to. Here is a selection of those lies:

1. Your baby is too big to be born vaginally. (Women grow babies big enough for their own pelvises. A small woman can birth a big baby no problem).

2. Your baby is breech, so you must have a C-section. (Breech is just a variation of normal – there is no reason why you can’t have a vaginal birth).

3. Your waters have broken. You must give birth within 48 hours, or you will have a dry birth and that’s more painful & dangerous for you and the baby. (Amniotic fluid, like saliva, does not just ‘dry up’).

4. We have to ‘check’ you – i.e. perform (often painful) vaginal examinations – to see how you’re progressing. (A VE is not necessary and does not indicate how dilated a woman’s cervix is. The cervix – like the anus – is a sphincter muscle. It will contract involuntarily when touched.)

5. Once you go ‘over’, we’ll have to induce you. (Babies come when they’re ready. The ‘rule’ about pregnancy lasting 40 weeks is a load of nonsense. Women have different cycles and pregnancy length is affected by a number of variables. A normal pregnancy can last anywhere from 37-44 weeks if dated from the last menstrual period).

6. Normal progression is one centimetre an hour. You have 12 hours to produce this baby, or we’ll have to induce you. (Women are different. Babies are different. Many things affect the rate at which labour progresses. This 1cm per hour rule – known as the ‘Dublin Rule’ because it was invented in Holles Street – is a load of nonsense and does more harm than good).

7. If you don’t submit to X your baby will die! (women are routinely told that their babies will die if they are ‘careless’ enough to ignore doctors’ wishes.)

8. Your last baby was born by Caesarean section. Therefore, it is too dangerous for you to have a homebirth. (A previous c-section does not automatically preclude a homebirth or vaginal birth of any sort.)

9. Push when we tell you. (This practice – known as ‘purple pushing’ – is actually bad for you and your baby. It increases the likelihood of you bursting blood vessels in various parts of your body – including your eyes. It also affects oxygen getting to your baby and works against your body.)

10. You are lucky I did a Caesarean section. The cord was around the baby’s neck and it would have died if you’d tried to have it vaginally. (About 50% of babies – my own included – are born with their cords wrapped once or twice around their necks. This is not dangerous because an umbilical cord is not like a rope, but soft and squidgy like a full garden hose).

There are many, many more lies that women are told. Please feel free to add yours in the comments section below.

Our collective outrage is being collated under the hashtag #maternityire on Twitter and you can join in the conversation.

Austerity Bites – Ratatouille

There’s something about so-called ‘peasant food’ that makes it far tastier than haute cuisine.  It’s comforting and wholesome and earthy. Most of my favourites dishes are, essentially, peasant meals. Like ratatouille.

Now, I won’t lie to you. This dish takes a bit of time to prepare, but it’s worth it. Due to the time it takes to prepare, it’s a lovely one to make with your family over the course of an hour on a lazy weekend afternoon. The most time-consuming part is the tomato sauce, but making it from scratch is well worth the effort.  This tomato sauce is a great basic sauce – perfect for slopping on pizza (thicken it up with a bit of tomato puree for that purpose, if needs be), running through pasta, using as a dip or crusty bread, or – as in this case – providing the base for a stew.  In fact, this sauce is good enough to put in an attractive pot (or a kilner jar) and bring it (with or without a baguette) to a dinner party. (We all have those weeks when the budget doesn’t stretch to a bottle of wine.)

This week – with tomatoes and courgettes both on special offer in Aldi – is the perfect week to make big quantities of this recipe. It freezes well and, in spite of (or maybe because of!) its humble origins, I think it makes a lovely meal for sharing with lovely friends.

Start with the tomato sauce:

800g Tomatoes (fresh or tinned)

10 cloves (Approximately 1 Bulb) of Garlic

3 Tablespoons of Dried Herbs OR 8-10 Leaves of Fresh Herbs

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Salt & Freshly Ground Pepper

If you’re starting with fresh tomatoes, slip them out of their skins: With a sharp knife, cut an ‘x’ on the bottom (the opposite side to where they were attached to the vine) and pop them into a bowl of boiling water. Leave for about 30 seconds, then tip them out of the hot water and into cold. The skins should come away easily from the fruit.

Chop the tomatoes, removing the hard white membranes.

If you’re starting with tinned tomatoes, open the cans 🙂

Peel and bash (or press) the garlic.

Pour enough of the olive oil into a medium-sized pot to cover the bottom. The fruitier the oil you have, the better.

Heat the oil over a medium heat.

Turn the heat to medium-low and add the garlic.

Saute the garlic until it turns golden. Garlic burns really easily, so be vigilant here! If you’re worried that your pot may be too hot, take it off the stove and let the residual heat in the pot cook the garlic.

When the garlic is golden, add the tomatoes, the salt, pepper and herbs. I know it may seem like a lot of herbs, but please be generous with them. Forget your little dainty spoonfuls of dried herbs and add a good handful. Trust me on this! I use a selection of whatever is in the kitchen – or a pre-mixed Herbs de Provence . If I have a live plant knocking about, I’ll add fresh leaves – maybe 4 basil leaves, 4 sage leaves and 20 rosemary spines.

Add a sprinkle of salt and a really good grinding (about a teaspoon) of pepper.

Turn the heat up until the sauce is just under the boil, then reduce the heat to low and leave the it alone – partially covered – for about 40 minutes.

At the end, you can add a glug (maybe 3 tablespoons)  of red wine if you happen to have a bottle open, or a splash (about 2 teaspoons) of balsamic vinegar. (Don’t despair if you find you’ve been too heavy-handed with the vinegar – a teaspoon of sugar, dissolved into the sauce should right things)

Tomato Sauce

While the sauce is cooking, prepare the veg. You’ll need:

1 Medium Sized Onion

1 Aubergine

2 Courgettes

1 Bell Pepper

Olive Oil

Salt & Pepper to taste

I salt aubergines and courgettes before I use them. This removes excess water and ensures they don’t disintegrate in the stew.  Top and tail the vegetables, cut them into discs and pop the disks into a plastic sieve or colander (metal, salt and water not being the best combination). Shake a generous amount of salt over the eggplant (you can use cheap salt like Saxa for this job!). Leave it to drain over a bowl for about half an hour. Then (and I know this seems counter-intuitive) rinse the salt off under running water and gently squeeze the discs against the sides of the sieve to get all the water out. If you like, you can pat the discs dry in kitchen paper or a tea towel.

Sometimes, I manage to time it so my sauce is ready at about the same time as my vegetables are salted, but that’s only when I’m pretending to be really efficient.

Anyway, while the veg are salting, peel and roughly chop the onion.

Cut the pepper into bite-sized chunks.

Halve the bigger aubergine and courgette discs, so they are roughly the same size as the peppers.

Get a big pot (possibly your biggest) and, over a medium heat, warm enough olive oil to cover the bottom.

Add the onion and cook for about 10 minutes.

Add the aubergine and courgette to the pot and cook, stirring, for about 10 minutes, until they are slightly coloured.

Add the bell peppers and, still stirring, cook the lot for about another 5 minutes, until the peppers start to colour as well.

Tip in the tomato sauce and cook the lot, partially-covered, over a gentle, medium-low heat for 20 minutes.  A few more herbs won’t do it any harm if you fancy lobbing them in.

Season with salt and pepper and serve with plenty of grated cheese.

We have this with rice, quinoa, pasta or – if we’re feeling Continental – fresh baguette.

Pot of Ratatouile

Austerity Bites – Jackfruit Curry

We descended upon our local Asian shop the day before yesterday and stocked up on some of the things we needed. Fortunately, there was a bit more in the coffers than usual, so I went a bit mad.

Actually, that’s not strictly true. I just decided to buy food rather than pay my phone bill.

Anyway, the main point is that stocks were replenished. I picked up  12 tins of tomatoes for €3.99 and paid €4.99 for a dozen cans of chickpeas. Chillies were €5.99 per kilo – I got about 30 of them for €0.24 – way cheaper than even the cheapest supermarket. Economies of scale, I think it’s called.

In the middle of all this cheapie-cheap stuff, I got us a treat: Jackfruit. If you have been to South East Asia, chances are you’ve come across durian. This is a large fruit (about the size of a basketball) that  very prickly on the outside and, when cut, smells similar to cat’s pee. In colour and texture, it is similar to custard and it’s an acquired taste. A taste, I hasten to add, I never acquired.

The reason I mention durian is because jackfruit is its Indian first-cousin. Less cat-pee, less prickly and less custard-y, though – I love jackfruit. It’s in season at the moment and we picked up 1.5kg for €5.

Jackfruit

After we’d had our fill of the fresh, raw fruit, I suddenly remembered that when I’d been pregnant with Kashmira (ten years ago!) our nanny used to make me a jackfruit curry. Normally, if you’re using a fruit in a curry, you use it when it’s slightly under-ripe. Jackfruit is an exception, though – you can use the under-ripe or the ripe fruit.

To the best of my recollection, this is the recipe Nishanthi used to cook for us:

Jackfruit Curry

150g Ripe Jackfruit

1/2 Teaspoon of Chilli Powder

1/2 Teaspoon of Turmeric

Salt to Taste

100mls of Water

20g grated coconut (I use dried because I can’t get it fresh)

2 Fresh Green Chillies

1/2 Teaspoon of Cumin Seeds

1/2 Teaspoon of Mustard Seeds

1 Red Chilli

3-4 Curry Leaves

2 Teaspoons of Coconut Oil

Cut the jackfruit into bite-sized pieces.

Cut Jackfruit

Put jackfruit, salt, turmeric, chilli powder and water into a medium-sized saucepan.

Bring to the boil and then simmer for about ten minutes.

While the jackfruit is cooking, make a paste using the grated coconut, chillies and cumin seeds (grind with a blender, adding a little water as necessary).

When the jackfruit is done – it will be tender but not mushy and still holding its shape – add the paste to the fruit and bring the lot back to the boil.

Heat the coconut oil in a small pan, and add the chillies, curry leaves and mustard seeds. When the seeds begin to sputter, remove from the heat and pour over the curry.

Jackfruit Curry

Cooking the fruit changes the texture completely.

The raw fruit is quite sweetly pungent – though not unpleasant – it hits the back of your throat rather than the tip of the tongue. It has a thick texture – similar to that of raw mushrooms. Cooked, it’s more like stewed apple before it gets pulpy.

If you can get your hands on a bit of jackfruit, it’s an interesting addition to the dinner table.

Austerity Bites – A Reflection on the Recipes

I posted my recipes this past week pretty much as I cook them, so I thought I’d add a few words here about things that go on in my kitchen that I didn’t address properly/at all in the recipes I posted.

 

First, a word on… salt: At the moment, I’m using Pink Himalayan Salt – because it’s pretty (!) and because it’s inexpensive – but otherwise I use Maldron Sea Salt.  That table salt stuff I buy to use for cleaning and for salting certain ‘squashy’ vegetables – courgettes, aubergines etc.

 

We need salt. We don’t need lots. The pink salt I use is very ‘salty’, so a pinch is enough. Otherwise, the average adult needs about 1.5g of sodium per day, and we all need more in the heat (when we’re perspiring more than usual).

 

Pink Salt

Himalayan Pink Salt

A word on…..portions: I’m a big fan of cooking once to eat twice. The recipes I used last week allowed us to do just that – and even have some left for sharing/freezing. Few things were finished. The exception being the masoor (red) lentil dish on Day 6.  You could easily halve the ingredients I listed and feed an adult and 2 kids with moderate appetites.

 

A word on…..utensils: We don’t use non-stick utensils in our house. For years, we kept pet birds. Teflon is not kind to little birds (in fact, it kills them) and Kashmira reasoned that if it’s not good for them, it can’t be much good for us, either.  In order to ensure things don’t stick, I don’t increase the amount of fat I use – I just cook a little more slowly, and add a bit of water if I need to.

 

A word on…..chilli: I don’t use buckets of chilli. I think that the purpose of chilli – and other spices – is to add flavour to dishes, not mask the flavours of the food you’re cooking. Being able to eat really hot food is not a sign that you are ‘hard’, ‘tough’, or ‘cool’. It means you need to find a new hobby. And possibly that you’re lacking in zinc.

 

Chillies

A mixture of dried and fresh chillies.

 

Finally, a word on…..spices: Spices are wonderful to add something special to your food. Don’t be too heavy-handed, though. While a little is good, more is not necessarily better. Again, you want the taste of the spices to enhance the taste of your cooking, not overwhelm it.

 

When it comes to buying spices, don’t forget that they are far more expensive in supermarkets than in Asian stores. In Asian stores, however, they can often come in larger quantities than you’d like. If you don’t use spices a lot in your cooking, why don’t you consider buying with a friend or two (or three)? For about a fiver each, you could buy a bag of each of the basics and divide them up between you.  That way, you can each get ‘starter’ packs of all the basics for way less than you’d get them in a shop with a well-recognised name.

 

Spices

 

Back left: Fenugreek Powder

Back Right:Turmeric Powder

Centre: Ground Cloves

Front Left: Cardamom Pods

Front Right: Coriander Seeds

Austerity Bites – A Reflection

Six Days of Austerity was a wonderful experience. I really enjoyed sharing my recipes with you – and I was delighted by all the support you gave me in my endeavours.

 

The first post in the series felt like the bravest post I’d ever published. Braver than talking honestly and openly about my own mental health issues; braver than talking about sexual abuse, spousal abuse or other family issues. Braver than taking an unpopular stance on political or parenting issues. Braver than anything else I ever wrote about because, in that first Austerity Bites post, I admitted to being financially insecure.  I have always felt that Ireland is a land of inveterate snobs, where people are judged by material possessions and looked down on when they are in financial difficulties. I’ve always felt that, in Ireland, there was nothing worse than being poor. So to come out and admit that I was trying to raise two kids on next-to-nothing felt like the bravest thing I’d ever written.

 

The kind, supportive reactions of people who read and commented on this blog turned that from ‘brave’ to ‘liberating’. So thank you all for your kindness and support.

 

Of course, after the social welfare cheque hit and I’d paid (a bit) off  (some of) the bills, I realised there’s  not much more this week than there was last week. The thing about this past week – which was particularly punishing – is that I used up much of my reserves. I went in to the six days knowning that there were still certain staples (lentils and tins of tomatoes, for example). They have been used up now. The cupboards are bare. Before heading into the next week, I have to sit down and think how on earth I will manage to replenish the stocks somewhat in order to provide nourishment for my girls.

 

Given all that,  I have a feeling there will be more Austerity Bites posts and recipes in the near future.  Stay tuned! 🙂

 

There will be reflections on the recipes to follow.

Austerity Bites – Recipes From Day 6

Pancakes

200g Plain White Flour

2 Teaspoons of Baking Powder

1/2 Teaspoon of Salt

3 Teaspoons of Sugar

400mls of Coconut Milk

1 (precious) Egg

Sift the flour and baking powder into a large bowl.

Add the salt and sugar.

Crack in the egg.

Mix in the coconut milk.

Stir the lot together, adding water by dribbles until you have a smooth (though not runny) batter of dropping consistency.

Heat a drop of oil in shallow frying pan.

Drop a soupspoon-full (or dessertspoon-full) of batter on the pan and spread it slightly with the back of the spoon.

Cook over a medium-high heat until bubbles appear on the surface, then turn them over and cook for another minute or two.

There is so much you can serve these with – yogurt, berries, fruit, ice-cream, cream, sugar & lemon, honey….. 🙂

Red Lentils

200g Red Lentils

1 Litre of Water (approximately)

1 Teaspoon of Turmeric

Pinch of salt

1 Tablespoon of Ghee

1 Onion

2 Teaspoons of Panch Phoran*

400g of Tinned Tomatoes

Rinse the lentils. Put them in a sieve and run cold water over them until the water runs clear – otherwise, the lentils will be scummy.

Put the lentils in a saucepan and cover them with cold water.

Leave them to steep for about half an hour.

Drain the lentils and add about 1 of fresh cold water – really, you just want enough water to cover them and come about another 2 cms over the lentils.

Add turmeric and salt.

Bring to the boil.

Turn the heat down and simmer the lentils, covered,  for a half an hour or so – until they are soft, but not mushy.

If they are still too ‘soupy’, take the lid off the pot, raise the heat and boil rapidly for a few minutes. You’re looking for a more like ‘porridge’ than ‘soup’. A bit like this:

Cooked Dal

While the lentils are cooking, prepare your masala:

Peel and chop the onion.

Heat the ghee in a frying pan.

Add the onion and caramelise over a low heat.

Add the panch phoran and cook for another five minutes, until the spices release their fragrance.

Add the tomatoes and cook for 4-5 minutes.

For divilment – and so I can call it fusion (!) – I added a splash (about 1 teaspoon) of Balsamic vinegar.

Add the drained lentils and, stirring, cook for a further five minutes.

*There’s a recipe for this spice mix on Day Two of Austerity Bites 

Austerity Bites – Day 6

Well, we made it! Six days of budget meals has seen us all still in one piece and nary a hunger pang between us.

For breakfast on this final day of Austerity Bites, I used up our one remaining egg to make pancakes. As we had no cow’s milk, I used coconut milk instead. My one can had been in the freezer for a few days (I’d intended using it for ice-cream or something, then changed my mind) and spent another fortnight in the fridge, so it was still quite solid. This meant I had to use a bit of water to make my batter better.

Now, a word about coconut milk – the stuff found in cans in German supermarkets is every bit as good as the stuff in premium British supermarkets – and only half the price. It’s cheaper again in Asian supermarkets where you also have the option of dried coconut milk that you then reconstitute with water.  Even though it works out a bit pricier to buy the canned rather than the dried, it is worth the extra few cents. Reconstituted coconut milk has a more mucous-y consistency and lacks a little of the flavour. Finally, don’t use coconut cream instead of coconut milk because they’re not the same thing.

These pancakes are more substantial than crepes and are very filling (the girls had them with sugar and the last of our lemons, while I had mine plain). There’s enough batter left for tomorrow’s breakfast as well. 🙂

Pancakes, Breakfast, Day 6

I must confess, I didn’t cook lunch – Ishthara (my 11 year-old) did. She used up the last of our 500g bag of pasta (bought last week) and cooked it to perfection before adding in our last jar of olives (again bought last week) and the second of the two Mozzarella balls we bought last week as well as the second bag of rocket I bought a few days ago. The final dribble of olive oil in the bottle finished the dish off.

Pasta, Day6

Dinner was one of my favourite comfort foods; a lovely, easy way to cook red dhal (raw red dhal pictured below).

Raw Dhal Day 6

It takes very little to turn that to this:

Prepared Dhal

We had the dhal with rice and the 200g of frozen broccoli that I was holding on to for just this purpose.

I don’t have a proper bamboo steamer anymore – so I ‘steamed’ the broccoli by putting enough water to come half-way up the vegetables in the pot and brought it to the boil. I then simmered it for 6 minutes and took it off the heat and drained it.

Broccoli Day 6

The drained water I added to the remaining carrot & orange soup the girls weren’t fond of on Day 2. This will be watered down a little bit more with other ‘extra’ water from vegetables over the next few days. I will then add an onion, boil the whole lot up and call it ‘stock’. Then, I’ll freeze it in an ice-cube tray and have stock cubes for the next while. 🙂

A grating of nutmeg and a grinding of salt and pepper rendered this broccoli delicious. Also (would you believe it?) there was enough of the spiced molasses cake left for a slice each after dinner.

Ishthara and Kashmira managed to have fruit today as well – there was about 100g of frozen berries left in the end of the bag we bought last week and they polished the lot off (leaving it in a covered dish in the sun for about twenty minutes first so it defrosted). Also, in the middle of the afternoon, my friend and neighbour Susie dropped in a bunch of radishes – which the girls demolished as a snack.

As usual, recipes will follow…..

Austerity Bites – Recipes From Day 5

Hummus

1 Tin of Chickpeas

8 Tablespoons of Olive Oil

10 Tablespoons of Tahini

2 Cloves of Garlic

1/2 a lemon

2 Teaspoons of Ras-el-Hanout

Salt & Pepper to taste

100mls Water

 

Drain and rinse the chickpeas.

Peel the garlic (this is the only time I’m not heavy-handed with garlic; because it’s not cooked, the flavour really can overpower the dip).

Juice the lemon.

Pop all the ingredients into a bowl (again, I find 1kg yogurt pots excellent for this purpose) and blend with a stick blender, adding the water as needed until you have a smooth – but not runny – mixture.

 

Paprika is generally used in hummus, but I substituted ras-el-hanout because I happen to like it. A dash of chilli pepper will give a slightly spicier hummus if that’s your thing.

 

Rasa

2 Onions

400g Tin of  Tomatoes

60g Dessicated Coconut (unsweetened)

2 Teaspoons of Garlic-Ginger Paste

8 Whole Cloves

8 Whole Peppercorns

6 Dry Red Chillies

1 Teaspoon of Poppy Seeds

1 Teaspoon of Fennel Seeds

4 Tablespoons of Oil

1/2 Turmeric Powder

Salt to Taste

 

If you’re using eggs, hard boil one for each diner. Maybe you know this already, but a few years ago, I realised that boiling eggs works best if you start with cold water. (Even if you don’t keep your eggs in the fridge, boiling water can shock them into cracking. Using cold water means the water and the eggs rise in temperature at the same time) When the water comes to the boil, turn the heat down to a simmer and leave them for ten minutes. When they are done, take them off the heat and drain them. When they are cool (covering them in more cold water can speed the process up), peel and halve them. 

While the recipe calls for 2 onions, I only used one because I only have two left, and I want the other for tomorrow’s dhal.  

With regard to the oil, we are down to a dribble, so I used 3 tablespoons of mustard oil instead. It gave a lovely sharp taste to the mixture.  

I had two green bell peppers, so I added them to the pot as well. 

 

Drain and rinse the kidney beans.

Heat the oil in a wok or frying pan and add the cloves, peppercorns, chillies, poppy seeds and fennel seeds. Sauté the mixture until the spices yield their fragrance.

Add the onion until it’s softening then turn the heat down and add the ginger-garlic paste. Fry until the vegetables are browned, but not burnt. Garlic burns really easily, so you’ll need to stir the mixture continuously.

Add the coconut and continue frying until it browns.

Add the tomatoes and continue frying for about five minutes.

Grind this mixture to a paste – adding in a little water if you need to.

Prepare the peppers – top and tail, then quarter and cut out the white membrane – and cut into chunks. Sear them in the wok/frying pan and then leave them to one side.

Transfer the paste back into the pan and add the salt and turmeric and a splash of water (if needed) to make your desired consistency.

Bring to the boil, then simmer for 5 minutes and add the peppers, after another 5 mintues, add the kidney beans.

Serve with boiled rice, chapatis, or baguettes.

Austerity Bites – Day 5

Well, we’re nearly there. Today is the second-last day of rationing in Larkin Lodge – well, until the next time, that is. 🙂

Today, we finished off our one sliced loaf of bread for breakfast – toast and cheese, supplemented with dry cereal. There’s still coffee in the pot for me, so all is well on that front.

I’m drinking tea during the day when I would otherwise have coffee. But when this is what you’re making tea with, it’s a greater pleasure:

Tea, Day 5

My tea set is a beautiful hand made set brought back from Korea by my lovely friend and former neighbour, Howard. It goes perfectly with the Oolong tea that he brought me back from China.

Lunch was hummus, carrot batons, olives and some of the lovely fresh rocket I bought last night,  and some more chapatis.

Lunch, Day 5

Later, when I was cleaning under the stairs (in times of plenty, I store extra tins, bottle of water and spices in the cupboard under the stairs) and I found a tin of tomatoes and two bottles of water. Result!

For dinner, I made an Indian dish that is typically associated with the state of Maharashtra – where my eldest daughter was born – and which always makes me nostalgic for Pune whenever I cook it. The dish is usually served with boiled eggs, but my girls don’t like boiled eggs – which is just as well because we only have one egg….. So I substituted a tin of kidney beans (bought with 21 cents from the €2 I found in my jeans).  We had two green bell peppers in the fridge from about two weeks ago, which were still in good shape, so I added them, too.

Rasa Dinner, Day 5

Fruit bowls were harder to assemble today. There was a nectarine and 20 cherries left (I thought they’d polished the lot off yesterday, but I was mistaken) and they had another orange each. I’d have preferred to have given them more, but it wasn’t there.

I’m hoping that their fruit bowls, carrots, olives, tomatoes, onion and chickpeas will all combine to make up their five-a-day.

Tomorrow will mark the end of our six days of “Austerity Bites”. I can’t say I’ll be sorry.

Recipes to follow…..

Austerity Bites – Recipes From Day 4

Kashmiri Aubergines

Vegetable for shallow frying (I’ve little  oil left, so used ghee)

1 large aubergine

4 green cardamom pods, bruised

1/2 tsp fennel powder

1/2 tsp tumeric powder

1/2 tsp dried ginger powder

Pinch of asafoetida (hing)

300g natural yoghurt

Salt

I salt aubergine before I use it (unless I’m roasting it). This is seen by some as ‘old-fashioned’, but I find that it removes excess moisture and ensures that the vegetable  crisps up nicely when fried, and doesn’t go ‘spongy’ when you cook it any other way. Often, people who don’t like aubergine find the texture objectionable, not the taste. Anyway – to salt the aubergine, top and tail it, cut it into discs and pop the disks into put it in a plastic sieve or colander (metal, salt and water not being the best combination). Shake a generous amount of salt over the eggplant (you can use cheap salt like Saxa for this job!). Leave it to drain over a bowl or in the sink for about half an hour. Then (and I know this seems counter-intuitive) rinse the salt off under running water and gently squeeze the discs against the sides of the sieve to get all the water out. If you like, you can pat the discs dry in kitchen paper or a tea towel. 

Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan until it is very hot.

Fry the aubergine on both sides until it’s golden brown in colour.

Drain on kitchen paper and keep to one side.

Discard all but 1 tablespoon of oil.

Drop the cardamoms, spice powders and asafoetida into the oil.

Add the yoghurt immediately.

Season with salt and heat through, stirring constantly, until the gravy is heated through.

Add the fried aubergine and serve immediately. If you have coriander, it’s nice to garnish the dish – I’ve none the moment, but we survived. 🙂

Urid Dhal 

There are two types of urid dhal. One is whole urid – which is black – and the other is split urid – which is white. For this recipe, I used the split urid, which doesn’t need much soaking. 

1.2 Litres of Water

150g Urid Dhal

1 Onion

1 Teaspoon of Ginger

2 Green Chillies

1 Teaspoon of Cumin Seeds

2 Bay Leaves

3 Cloves

1/2 Teaspoon of Turmeric Powder

Pinch of Garam Masala

Squeze of lemon juice (I’ve loads of lemons – they were on special 2 weeks ago!)

1/2 Tin of Tomatoes (I still had half a tin in the fridge from Day 2)

Wash the urid dhal – put it in a sieve and run cold water over it until the water runs clear.

Put the lentils in a pot with enough water to cover them and soak for about 15 minutes.

Change the water on the lentils and bring to the boil.

Simmer the lentils until they are soft, but not mushy – 30-40 minutes.

While the lentils are cooking, prepare the masala.

Peel and chop the onion.

Cut the chillies into small pieces  (I use a scissors).

Bash the ginger with a pestle in a mortar. If you don’t have those, bashing it on a chopping board with a rolling pin or wooden spoon works just fine.

When the dhal is nearly cooked, start the masala.

Heat the oil in a pan and add the cloves, bay leaves and cumin seeds.

When they start to splutter, add the onion and ginger and green chillies.

Fry for a few minutes then add the dhal, lemon juice and tomatoes. Stir gently over a medium heat for about 3 minutes.

Add in the garam masala and serve immediately.

Naan

I’m not sure I should post this seeing as I didn’t get it right, but I will anyway! 🙂 

300g Plain Flour

1/2 Teaspoon of Baking Soda

1/2 Teaspoon of Salt

1/2 Teaspoon of Baking Powder

150 mls Hot Milk

120 mls Hot Water

2 Teaspoons of Nigella (Onion) Seeds

Take the racks out of your oven and cover them with tin foil.

Turn the oven on to maximum.

Sift the flour, baking soda and salt together in a bowl.

Mix the baking powder into the hot milk and leave it for about a minute. When a few bubbles pop up on the surface of the milk, add it to the flour and mix well.

Knead the mixture, adding the water to make a soft dough. Keep kneading until the dough becomes smooth and elastic. Keep it covered, in a warm place, for 3-4 hours, until it rises.

Divide the dough into 6-8 balls.  Shape them into oblongs and pop them in the oven for about 15 minutes. The bread is done when it rises slightly and brown spots appear.

Austerity Bites – Day 4

Breakfast today was some of last night’s dhal with left over rice. Bacteria on rice multiplies very quickly, so you can only safely keep it for up to 24 hours in the fridge. Longer than that and it’s potentially dangerous – so chuck it.

By the way, having lentil curry for breakfast is not the same as having left-over pizza! In Asia, it’s not uncommon for people to start their day with curry, and we would do so often when we’re there, and occasionally when we’re here.

Lunch – which the girls prepared – was cheese and crackers, with the last of the cherry tomatoes (all bought on my shopping expedition last week) and a few slices of cucumber.

Lunch, Day 4 (cropped) 4

Later, the girls had oranges and finished off the other punnet of cherries I bought in Aldi (again part of their Super 6 this fortnight) last week.

More Orange Smiles

For dinner, we had naan with Kashmiri Aubergines

Kashmiri Aubergines (Day 4)

and a different type of dhal – urid dhal.

Urid Dhal

There’s a bit more work in naan than in chapatis, and as I don’t have a tandoor, I just used my electric oven. I have to be very honest here – I rolled the naan too thin, and they were not as fluffy as they should have been. Oops!

Naan (Day 4)

The girls have managed to ration their chocolate so there was enough for a bar each, and every time I looked at them I reminded them to drink water, so the bottles I bought last week are nearly gone. There wasn’t money for a new filter for the filter jug last week, and I don’t allow them to drink ‘raw’ water from the tap, so I’m hoping that we can get to the end of Day 6 without anyone suffering dehydration…..

In a spot of good fortune, I found €2 in my jeans pocket when I was tidying. It’s ‘trolley money’ from when I was in the supermarket last week. Joy! I was able to buy some greens.

Rocket

Recipes to follow!

Austerity Bites – Recipes From Day Three

Carrot & Orange Soup

6 Carrots

1 Orange

10g Fresh Ginger

3 Spring Onions (or one onion)

Knob of Butter

1 Litre of Water (or stock, preferably)

Salt and pepper to season.

Peel and slice the carrots.

Juice the orange.

Pound or grate the ginger.

Melt the butter in a pot.

Snip in the spring onions and sauté them.

Add the ginger and stir for another minute.

Add the carrots, orange juice and water (or stock) and bring to the boil.

Simmer for ten minutes, until the carrots are al dente.

Blend the whole thing and serve. We had it with rice because there isn’t much bread left and because we tend to eat soup with rice.

Rogani Kumbh

1 Onion

3 Medium-sized tomatoes (I used canned because we have no fresh)

2 Green Chillies

5 Cloves of Garlic

10g Ginger

1.5 Tablespoons oil (I used ghee – stop laughing down the back!)

1 Teaspoon Coriander Powder

1 Teaspoon Cumin Powder

1/2 Teaspoon Chilli Powder

Pinch Turmeric Powder

1/2 Teaspoon Garam Masala

250g Mushrooms (I used chestnut mushrooms)

Salt to taste

3 Tablespoons of Natural or Greek Yogurt

Halve (or quarter, depending on size) the mushrooms.

Peel and quarter the onion and blend it with the tomatoes, chillies, ginger and  garlic.

Heat the oil over a medium heat and add the blended mixture and spice powders.

Stir – being careful not to let the masala stick or burn – until the oil begins to separate from the rest of the mixture.

Add the mushrooms and stir gently.

Season with salt and add a splash of warm water.

Cook for about ten minutes until the fungi are soft but not pulpy.

Take off the heat and stir in the yogurt.

Chapatis

450g Atta Flour (plain flour is fine)

2 Teaspoons of Melted Ghee (or oil)

Warm Water

We love chapatis and they are quick and easy to make. I have friends in India who pride themselves on how perfectly round their chapatis are. I don’t get it – I think they taste the same no matter what shape they are. 🙂 

Mix the ghee (or oil) into the flour and slowly add enough warm water to make a soft dough. (The amount of water you’ll need depends on the type of flour you’re using and how hard or soft your water is – so apologies for being vague!)

Now comes the fun bit – knead the dough for about 10 minutes. I know this sounds like a long time, but I normally only knead it for about 5 minutes. Last night, however, I lost the run of myself and kneaded it for at least 10 (could have been 15). The result? The best chapatis I’ve ever made.

You need a flat pan to cook these on. I’m lucky – I have a purpose-built tawa that I got in India which does the job perfectly.

Tawa

Separate your dough into between 12 and 15 lime-sized balls. Dust them with flour and then roll them out until they’re quite flat.

Dry fry these on your flat pan.

When they bubble/puff up, turn them over and use a clean tea-towel to gently press them down. Each one only takes about 3 minutes to cook.

Keep the chapatis warm in tinfoil and serve straight away. If you’re keeping them for later, re-heat quickly on the stove or in the microwave if you have one.

Dhal

There are many ways to cook lentils. This recipe is for a Red Lentil Curry

200g Red Lentils

1 Onion

2 Teaspoons of Oil

3 Teaspoons of Curry Paste

2 Teaspoons of Curry Powder*

1 Teaspoon of Ground Turmeric

1 Teaspoon of Ground Cumin

1 Teaspoon of Chilli Powder

Pinch of salt

3 Teaspoons of Ginger Garlic Paste**

200g Tomato Paste

Tip the lentils into a sieve and rinse them under cold running water, until the water runs clear, otherwise the lentils will get scummy).

Put the lentils in a saucepan and cover them with cold water. Bring to the boil over a high temperature.

Turn the heat down and simmer the lentils until they are soft but not mushy – about 40 minutes.

Combine the curry paste, all the spice powders (including the curry powder) and salt in a bowl.

While the lentils are cooking, caramelise the onions.

Add the spice paste and poweders to the onions and cook over a high heat for about 2 minutes.

Stir in the tomato paste and reduce the heat. Allow the curry base to simmer away while the lentils finish cooking.

There should be little or no water left on the dhal when it’s finished cooking. If  they are very watery, drain (most of) the water off – you don’t want the curry to be sloppy.

Tip the lentils into the curry sauce and mix well.

Serve with chopped coriander, if you have any.

*I make my own curry powder. It’s easy and cheap if you already have the spice powders

3 Tablespoons of Coriander

2 Tablespoon of Turmeric

1 Tablespoon of Ground Cumin

1 Tablespoon of Chilli Powder

1 TAblespoon of Fenugreek

2 Teaspoons of Amchoor (mango powder)

2 Teaspoons of Ground Cinnamon

1 Teaspoon of Ground Cloves

1 Teaspoon of Ground Ginger

1 Teaspoon of Ground Cardamom

Mix all the above together and store in an airtight container.

** Ginger garlic paste can be bought in any Asian shop, and in some supermarkets, but it’s easy to make your own. Just take equal amounts of ginger and garlic and pound them together in a mortar and pestle.

Austerity Bites – Day Three

This morning, Kashmira made the smoothies for breakfast. She added ground almonds to the mix we used yesterday.  I think she enjoyed it:

K with Smoothie on her face

 

 

I decided to make soup for lunch. We had a bag of carrots and plenty of oranges so it seemed obvious that I should make carrot and orange soup. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until I was serving it up that I remembered the last time I’d made carrot and orange soup, the girls hadn’t really liked it. Still, they were hungry, so it was eaten. But no one went back for seconds.

 

Soup, Day 3

 

 

Fruit in the afternoon was melon and pear with a good grinding of nutmeg.

 

Fruit Bowl Day 3

 

 

Dinner was dhal (lentils) with rogani kumbh (mushrooms in tomato & onion gravy) and chapatis.

 

Dinner, Day 3

 

 

During the day, there was chocolate and a slice of the molasses cake made on Day 1.

At this stage, no one is going to bed hungry, but I am a bit worried that there hasn’t been a green leafy vegetable eaten all week. I’m also aware that we don’t have nuts in the cupboard and “eating a rainbow” on a daily basis  is beyond our capabilities this week.

 

We’re also rationing – I want to make naan for Day 4, so I had to measure out milk from the one carton we could afford this week, and caution Ishthara that there’s not much left for her cereal.

 

Ishthara had wanted us to make pancakes later this week, and was disappointed we mightn’t have enough milk. But we have coconut milk so that will do beautifully. Also, we have one egg (again, not enough money to buy more this week),  so we’re trying to figure out the best way to use it! I had wanted to make an orange cake yesterday – but the recipe I use needs eggs. I can’t experiment because our resources are too scarce to flirt with the possibility of wasting ingredients.

 

We have precious little yogurt left, either. We go through about one and a half kilos of yogurt (natural or Greek) every week. Then I remembered how I used to make my own when we lived in Asia. So I made the decision to use a few drops of our remaining milk to revive that tradition.

 

I’m also a bit concerned that even with rationing, I’ll run out of coffee. I have a terrible coffee addiction and suffer awful withdrawal headaches (akin to migraines) if I don’t get my ‘fix’. I know that green tea contains enough caffeine to sort me out if I get desperate, but I love the taste of coffee and  I’d like not to get desperate.

 

Recipes from Day Three to follow….. 🙂

Austerity Bites – Day 2

Day two of Austerity Bites started with a breakfast of smoothies – made with frozen berries, Greek yogurt and honey – for Kashmira and I, while Ishthara had a bowl of cereal with a splash of milk.

Lunch saw us polishing off the left-overs from the night before (apart from the roasted tomatoes, there was a bit of everything) and supplementing that with toasted cheese sandwiches.

Even after we’d gorged on them twice, there was still plenty of the patatas bravas left. I dropped the remainder into my friend to supplement supper for herself, her partner and their two kids. Only fair, really, considering she gave me half a bottle of olive oil yesterday, when I ran out.

Lunch, Day Two

My girls had a chocolate bar each mid-morning, and in the afternoon, their fruit bowls contained a sliced fresh nectarine and 125g of cherries each (both on special offer in Aldi this week).

Dinner was puy lentils with feta and olives, served with pasta.  Apart from the pasta and the olives, everything else I needed for dinner was already in our cupboards.

Puy Lentils

Before bed, Ishthara had another bowl of cereal with milk. I managed to survive on just three mugs of coffee. I had several cups of Minty Moroccan tea, and one of peppermint to keep my mouth happy throughout the day.

Here are today’s recipes:

Berry Smoothie

9 Tablespoons of Greek Yogurt

200g Frozen Fruits of the Forest/Berries

3 Tablespoons milled linseed

1 Tablespoon Clear Honey

Put all ingredients in a bowl (I find the pot from a kilo of yogurt works well) and whizz with a stick blender. If you use the berries while they’re still frozen or semi-frozen, the whole thing ends up being deliciously chilled.

Puy Lentils With Olives and Feta (Serves 3)

125g Puy Lentils

90g Olives

100g Feta

1 Large, Dried, Chilli (optional)

For The Dressing:

1 1/2 Tablespoons of Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1/2 Tablespoon Balsamic Vinegar

1 Teaspoon of Dijon Mustard

1/2 Teaspoon brown sugar

Salt & Pepper to season

Put the lentils in a pot with cold water and bring to the boil. Let them boil for a minute and whip them off the heat. Drain the lentils (I just pour them into a sieve and let the water run off). Put them back in the pot with the dried chilli and add just enough cold water to cover them.

Put the lentils back on the cooker and bring them to the boil.

Turn the heat down so the lentils are very gently simmering. Simmer for 30 minutes until soft but not mushy.

Meantime, make the dressing. Take all the ingredients and combine them in a screw-top jar. Shake well.

When the lentils are cooked, take them off the heat and drain if necessary. Tip them into a bowl.

Halve the olives and add them to the lentils.

Crumble the feta over the olives and lentils.

Pour the dressing over the dish. I used a spatula to make sure I got every last drop out of the jar!

Yesterday, I made mention of panch phoran and one of you queried what that might be. It’s a mixture of five spices (panch is five in Hindi) that are used to give flavour to many Indian dishes. You can buy it in Asian shops – or easily make your own by taking equal parts of cumin seeds, fennel seeds, mustard seeds, nigella seeds and fenugreek seeds, mixing them together and storing in an airtight container.

Panch Phoran

Austerity Bites – Recipes From Day 1

Grapefruit & Avocado Salad *

1 Pink Grapefruit

1 Avocado

1 Green Chilli

2 Spring Onions

Teaspoon of Fresh Ginger, grated

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Salt & Pepper to taste

Holding your hand over a bowl to catch all the juice, peel the grapefruit and pop the segments out of the pith.

Peel the avocado and cut it in strips off the stone.

Chop in the spring onions and chilli.

Add the ginger, sprinkle salt and pepper over the fruit and drizzle the oil over the salad.

Honey & Garlic Roasted Tomatoes *

500g Cherry Tomatoes

5 Cloves of Garlic

1 Tablespoon of Honey

3 Tablespoons of Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Salt and Pepper

Preheat the oven to 180.

Cut the tomatoes and put them in an ovenproof dish, cut side up. They should be slightly squished in the dish, with little or no space between them.

Pound the garlic before adding the salt and pepper. Beat in the honey and olive oil. Spoon this lovely, icky-sticky mixture over the tomatoes. Don’t panic if you think there’s not going to be enough – there will be just enough to cover the fruit.  Roast them for about 30 minutes until they are soft and juicy. When you’ve finished eating the tomatoes, the oil and juices will be perfect for mopping up with bread.

Courgette & Mozzarella in Garlic Lemon Oil *

2 Courgettes

5 Tablespoons of Extra Virgin Olive Oil

3 Garlic Cloves, slivered

Grated Zest of 1 Lemon

1 Ball of Mozzarella

Salt & Pepper

Trim the courgettes. Then, using a vegetable peeler, slice them thinly. Put the slices in a bowl with 2 tablespoons of the oil. Mix them up with your implement of choice (I used my hands) to ensure the strips are all oiled.

Heat a large frying-pan over a fairly high heat and sear the courgette (you may need to do this in batches). Transfer to a dish and take the pan off the heat.

Add the rest of the oil, the garlic and lemon zest to the pan. Heat gently for a few minutes. Pour the infused oil over the courgettes and season. Add a squeeze of lemon juice, the Mozzarella  and a few fresh mint leaves if you have them.

Toss together and leave to stand, at room temperature, for about an hour before serving.

Dry Roasted Chickpeas With Lemon Juice & Panch Phoran

1 Can of Chickpeas

Juice of half a lemon

2 Teaspoons of Panch Phoran

Drain and rinse the can of chickpeas.

Pop them in an ovenproof dish and sprinkle the lemon juice and panch phoran over them.

Stick them in the oven (which is already pre-heated to 180 for the tomatoes) and roast them for about half an hour.

Patatas Bravas *

1kg New Potatoes

5 Tablespoons of Oil

Sea Salt

For the Tomato Sauce:

2 Tablespoons of Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 Onion

5 Garlic Cloves

2 Chillies

400g Tin of Tomatoes

2 Teaspoons of Ras El Hanout or paprika

1 Teaspoon Jaggery or Brown Sugar

Sea Salt & Pepper to Taste

Make the sauce first. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a saucepan over a medium-low heat. Add the onion and cook for about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and chilli. Cook, stirring, for a minute

Add the tin of tomatoes, ras el hanout, sugar,  salt and pepper. Simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally and breaking up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon.

Put the spuds in a large pot, cover with cold water, add salt and bring to the boil. When the potatoes are nearly done, but before they start to fall apart, drain them and tip them onto a clean tea-towel to absorb excess moisture before frying them.

I melted 5 teaspoons of  coconut oil in a large frying pan, and sautéd them for about 15 minutes, until they were lovely and crispy on the outside, and fluffy on the inside.

Drain the potatoes on some kitchen paper and  tip them into a bowl. Pour the sauce over them and serve warm.

Spiced Molasses Cake 

The oven was on for the tomatoes and the chickpeas, so I thought I’d make a cake. The molasses in this cake ups the nutritional value, so it nearly counts as healthy. 

2 Tablespoons of Butter (Softened)

50g Dark Brown Sugar

1 Egg

200g Molasses

150g Plain Flour

1 Teaspoon of Baking Soda

1/2 Teaspoon of Ground Ginger

1/4 Teaspoon Cinnamon

1/4 Teaspoon Ground Cloves

120mls Hot Water

Grease a loaf tin or 9″ cake pan.

Beat the butter and the sugar.

Add in the egg.

Stir in the molasses.

Sift the flour, baking soda and spices into a large bowl.

Add the egg and molsses mix and the water.

Stir the whole mixture together and pour the batter into the greased tin.

Put it in the oven (pre-heated for the tomatoes!) for about half an hour, or until a skewer comes out clean.

* These recipes were adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Veg every day!

Austerity Bites – Day 1

I went grocery shopping shortly after I’d published my last post. Before leaving the house, though, I warned my daughters that there probably wouldn’t be any chocolate this week. My eldest ran upstairs and returned with the contents of her purse for me.

“I don’t want to take your money!” I told her.

“I don’t need it for anything right now,” she replied.  “And now you can get some chocolate. And maybe some ice-cream?”

The forecast was for weather in the mid-twenties for the next few days. Definitely ice-cream weather.

As I added her money to mine, I discovered another €2.70 in my own wallet, bringing the grand total at my disposal to €37.96.

Money

Putting my mental maths to the test, I went to the first supermarket and spent €19.72. In the second, I spent another €14.89 before stopping in the last place for chickpeas and ice-cream; a total spend of €37.84.

Lidl receiptLidl receipt

For breakfast, I had coffee and the girls had cereal.  Lunch was pasta and fresh pesto (which was already in the fridge).

Pasta

At 4pm, the girls had a bowl of ice-cream and some frozen berries each. I tried to soothe my coffee-craving with various types of teas and infusions.

Ice-cream & berries

Dinner was a mezze of sorts: I made a grapefruit and avacado salad, honey and garlic roasted cherry tomatoes, courgette & mozarella in garlic lemon oil, dry-roasted chickpeas with lemon & panch phoran and patatas bravas.  Pudding was spiced molasses cake.

Mezze

Grapefruit & avacadoMolasses Spice Cake

I’ll post up the recipes next in case you want to recreate the veggie-fest.

Austerity Bites

So, this morning I found myself with the grand total of E23.66 to live on until Thursday of next week. That’s twenty-three euros and sixty-six cents with which to provide 18 meals for myself and my two daughters. Time was, I’d have spent more on a round of sandwiches.

 

Most weeks, I do have more money to spend on food, but this week one of my daughters needed a medical procedure that Crumlin hospital expected her to wait a few years for.  I made the informed decision to have the procedure done privately and don’t regret it. But our gas bill and the house insurance went out today, resulting in the afore-mentioned scant few bob left in the bank.

 

I’m not daunted, though, we’re vegetarian and I love to cook – plus, we do have a few staples (lentils and spices mainly!) in the cupboard.

Vegetables

 

I’ve decided to blog our meals this week and let you know how we get on. Will we end up eating the furniture by Tuesday? Or will we eat like kings? Will our foray into austerity eating see us missing out on vital nutrients? Or will I be even more aware of our nutritional needs now there is so little to play with?

 

Stay with me and find out! 🙂

 

Photo credit: Photobucket http://i364.photobucket.com/albums/oo83/vannessave22/fruit/Vegetables.jpg

Time Out For The Naughty Step?

In April of 2011, Ireland was rapped over the knuckles (pardon the pun!) by the EU for not having legislation outlawing smacking. I think it’s probably fair to say that most parents in Ireland do not lash out at their children the way previous generations of parents did, but can find themselves at a loss for what else to do that’s effective. Many parents use the concept of ‘time out’ or ‘the naughty step’ to enforce discipline without violence. But is this effective? Or does the naughty step make the parent – but not the child – feel better?

Article 19 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (which Ireland has signed) states that children must be protected from all forms of violence. To me,this means that children should not be hit- and I don’t think that’s open to discussion or interpretation. If hitting an adult is assault, then hitting a child is, too – whether that child is your own or someone else’s. The concepts of ‘time out’ and taking to the ‘naughty step’ have gained popularity with parents in Ireland – and appear to be the tools of disciplinary tools of choice for TV’s Supernanny (who, it must be noted, has no children of her own).

I’ve got to be honest, I have no time for time out, and I wonder what the naughty step did to make it so. My feeling on these methods is that, at times when your child is feeling upset or frustrated or angry, the last thing they need is to be pushed away from you. When my children had ‘episodes’ I found it comforted both of us if I gave them ‘time in’ rather than ‘time out’ and hugged them or put them in their sling. If their misdemeanour was something that really annoyed me, and felt unable to be loving, I would give myself ‘time out’ and leave the room until I had regained control of myself.

These days, with my kids aged 9 and 11, we operate a system of ‘Time and Room’. Taken from the nautical call – whereby if two ships are on a collision course and one calls for ‘time and room’ the other vessel must give it to them. Even if the first ship is in the wrong. In terms of family life, what this means is that if there is a row brewing or happening, any party involved can call ‘Time and Room’ and just leave. The other party/ies then give the person who has left the time and room they need to calm down/recompose/chill out. It works exceedingly well – giving everyone the time they need to reassess and recalibrate. The important thing about this method, I feel, is that we view it as a form of self-care and family-care rather than a punishment. The person calling for time and room decides how long it lasts, so they hold their own power and remain in control.

We adults need to remember that children don’t mean to make their carers angry. The behaviour we dislike has come about because they want attention, or their concentration dipped, or they switched off, or they were frustrated or angry with a situation or another person – perhaps a sibling. What they need is kindness and loving guidance, not to be shamed and embarrassed and made to feel as though they are not good enough.

In my view, the naughty step tells children that they can only be around us when they are “being good”. It tells children that our love is conditional upon their behaviour.

I know it’s easy to get frazzled and it’s easy to get upset with a child who isn’t doing what you want them to do, but as the eminent child psychologist Haim Ginott reminds us, behaviour is motivated by emotion. So we need to look beyond the child’s behaviour and look at the feeling(s) inspiring it.

(Image Credit:  Photobucket http://media.photobucket.com/image/naughty%20%20chair/red_savage1/Children/naughtychairlo.gif

Another Rapist Goes Free

justice photo: Zoloft Lawsuit Scales-of-Justice-336x336-300x300_zpsd0201d02.jpg

 

I’m still reeling at Mr Justice Garrett Sheehan’s decision, four days ago, to suspend sentencing for a man who raped his sister-in-law.  At the time, she was 14. The rapist is ten years her senior.

 

The judge, in his ‘wisdom’ has decided that the suffering the victim went through matters less than the suffering the man’s family would endure if he went to prison. Two of the man’s sons have autism and a third child has other medical needs.

 

The court has decided that it would put too much strain on the family (and, the cynical part of my brain suspects, the public purse) , if this man went to jail.  So he doesn’t have to. What next? Will a judge next week or the week after decide that a successful businessman doesn’t have to go to jail because the State might miss his tax contributions?

 

Or might a man be kept free because to imprison him might deny his new wife the right to start a family?

 

I’m sitting here wondering what the criteria actually is for a judge in an Irish court to decide that a convicted criminal actually has to serve his sentence.  These kinds of decisions hammer home an idea that women and children in Ireland are worth less than men. Or even just worthless, full stop.

 

The potential difficulties that this rapist’s family might encounter is deemed to be worse than the real and actual harm that has been done – and continues to be done – to the victim. The trauma that she has had to deal with on her own, is not deemed to be worth as much as the potential suffering that the rapist’s wife and children might endure.

 

I can’t help but wonder why the judge is so overly concerned with this man’s family when the man himself didn’t give much thought to them when he was busy raping his wife’s underage sister.

 

As for Mr Justice Garrett Sheehan’s assertion that the rapist has ‘self-rehabilitated’? I have two words – evidence, please? Research leads us to believe that men who get away with raping – as this man effectively has – don’t stop.

 

What about the victim, though? Surely, those of us who go to court put ourselves through that awful experience because we are seeking justice? What justice has she received?

 

Newspaper coverage of the case is here.

Mixed Messages? (Part One)

Tomorrow, the Irish state exams – the Junior Certificate (JC) and Leaving Certificate (LC) – will begin.  For much of the month of June, those aged 14-15 and 17-18 will be chewing their pencils and worrying about how these tests will affect the rest of their lives.

Pencil in Dictionary

 

Today, the media was all afire with older people (by that, I mean people in their 30s and older – we’re ancient as far as those teenagers are concerned) being very serious as they went on about how these exams aren’t the be all and end all.

“The results of your Leaving Cert won’t define you,” one Elder Lemon commented.

 

Psychologists, therapists, teachers and those in many different professions felt it necessary to state categorically that teenagers are more than the sum of their points. Several parents weighed in as well – some more maudlin than others.

 

Now, before you think I disagree with these people, let me quickly disabuse you of that notion. I agree. The Junior and Leaving Certificates don’t define who a person is. The results of the Leaving Certificate do, however, determine if a person can continue to college or university. The points achieved in the LC also determine whether or not one gets to study one’s first choice. These exams do have an immediate impact on the lives of the young people sitting them and there’s no getting away from that, though. Even if it’s only the few weeks of mortification after the results come out and you have to admit that you failed everything.

 

My difficulty – my irritation – with this wave of ‘the exams don’t really matter’, is that, for many of these teens, they have spent the past few years hearing the exact opposite. They have been told that unless they ace their exams they will amount to nothing. Oh! Those may not be the exact words, but that is the message. Believe me, these kids don’t invent the pressure out of thin air!

 

Of course, I’m not saying that the people who are giving advice today are speaking out of both sides of their mouths, just that…..well, it’s a bit late to be giving that message now. Can we try and be consistent and give the same message to our young people throughout their academic career. Perhaps a modicum of moderation. How about we decide that all we – and by “we” I mean teachers, parents and media professionals  – tell our teens is:

 

“You’re fabulous. These exams are unfair and out-dated, but at the moment, they’re all we have. Sorry about that. Please do yourself justice by trying your best; but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get the results you wanted/needed for the course you wanted/needed. You’re still fabulous.”

 

 

 

Through The Lens of Motherhood

In Ireland, we’re still talking about the Prime Time Special Investigative Report into child care and that’s a good thing. Childcare is an issue that needs examining. The sad thing is that it’s taken a crisis like this for the Irish public to take a look at where and how our children are treated when we’re away from them.

 

Dialogue is always good: People expressing their opinions and sharing their experiences, making suggestions and offering support is helpful. I am delighted that the conversation here has not resulted in women who work outside the home being pitted against women who don’t.

 

It’s disheartening, though, to note that this debate is happening now – when the damage has already been done to a number of children. As I have mentioned before, Ireland is a nation of reactionaries. We, as a nation, don’t sit down and plan things. We lurch from crisis to crisis and try to cobble remedies together instead of methodically looking at solutions to possible problems in the planning stages. Look, for example, at the current baby boom. Where are the babies born now  going to go to school in 4 or 5 years’ time?

 

One of the reactions to abuse in childcare is people asking for cameras to be installed to keep staff under surveillance. I have a few problems with this. Cameras don’t always work. They can be switched on and off with ease. Then there are issues around child protection – all parents would have to consent to all other parents having access to images of all the children. I might not want your husband watching my daughters. I might not want your wife commenting on our child’s speech to your wife.

 

My biggest concern with cameras is the message they sent to care-givers. If I put you under surveillance it means I don’t trust you. It means that I will allow you to do something but I won’t really trust you to do it or to do it properly. People who are constantly being watched are not necessarily going to do their jobs better. Certainly, care-givers aren’t going to express a more loving attitude because they know they are being filmed.

 

When I needed childcare, I was lucky enough to have a wonderful live-in nanny. Part of the reason that things worked so well for us was that Nishanthi knew she was a respected member of our household. When she’d only been with us a few days, she came to me to hand up her passport. Initially,  I thought she needed me to take it for safe keeping, but it transpired that Nishanthi assumed that (like her previous employers) I’d want to hang on to it so she couldn’t run away.   I told her I’d happily put it in the safe in my room for her, but that I certainly wasn’t demanding she surrender it.

“Nishanthi,” I told her. “I trust you with my baby. If I thought you were going to run away, then I have no business leaving my child with you.”

 

I think that basic premise applies no matter who you leave your children with. If you have an inkling that all is not as it should be, then act on that instinct. In Ireland, we defer too much to perceived authority figures. “Why” is largely academic at this moment. Whether it’s part of our colonial hangover or not is irrelevant.  What matters is that we fix it and think for ourselves.  I’m a great proponent of personal responsibility and recognise that, as a parent, my child’s welfare ultimately rests with me.

 

Baby zoos are impractical and not the best solution at all. Industrial solutions are fine for bags of cement or packets of biscuits, but for our babies? Definitely not the way to go. People say they like the idea of their children socialising with their peers. But how many other children do they think they need to ‘socialise’ with? If the were at home with Mammy, they’d only have one or two other kids to play with. So 30 or more children is not ideal. At a time when we are beginning to realise that large class sizes in schools are not conducive to either the social or academic excellence, why can’t we make the same realisation with regard to our babies.

 

There are many different solutions to the childcare issue. Each family needs to make the choice that is best for them, based on solid information and their own preferences. It is right that we are reeling. But when we’ve finished reeling, we need to do something real.

Mental Health Awareness Post (The Controversial One)

As Mental Health Awareness Month draws to a close (as I type, there’s just an hour left), I wanted to share something with you that has been bothering me for the past few weeks.

 

In April of this year, Donal Walsh – a sixteen year-old from Kerry was a guest on the Saturday Night Show on RTE.  Donal was dying of cancer and knew his days were numbered. In fact, he died on the 12th of May – just over a month after his TV appearance.

 

I never met Donal. I don’t know anyone who knew him personally, but he came across as a lovely bloke. He loved sport, he loved his family. He was connected to his community. And he wanted to live! More than anything, he wanted more time with his family. He was desperate to stay alive. And he was furious with people who die by suicide leaving “a mess” behind them.

 

Now, I have no doubt that Donal Walsh wanted to live. I have no doubt that he was perplexed by people who don’t want to live – but I worry about the effect his words may have had on people who are feeling suicidal.

 

I was a suicidal teen. There were times when all I wanted was to die. Death would have been a merciful relief. I used to go to sleep praying to a God I fervently believed in to let me die in the night – to please let the overdose work, to please let the poison seep through me, to let me annihilate myself.  Unlike Donal I had no loving family. Unlike Donal, I didn’t have a future worth living for. I didn’t have a team of medics who were rooting for me, I didn’t have a community that cared about me, I didn’t have teachers who were keen to do anything they could to help.

 

In short, Donal had people and a future to live for. Many, many suicidal people don’t and telling them he’s “very angry” with them isn’t exactly helpful. More guilt to add to the pain and guilt they are already suffering.  I understand that Donal wanted to live but what he didn’t seem to understand was that people who die by suicide don’t want to die – they just want their pain to end. They just want to wake up in the morning and not suffer. They want the misery to stop gnawing on their innards. When nothing else they try does that, they do the only thing they can and end their pain permanently.

 

Being angry with people who are in pain doesn’t lessen their pain.

 

It reminds me of the horrendous years I spent trying to have children. It was the biggest sorrow of my life that I was childless. I would have done anything to have a child to call my own (how I managed it is a whole other blog post!). I knew I was in trouble the day I caught myself talking myself into taking a baby who had been left outside a Prague  supermarket in his pram.  But that didn’t mean I was angry with other women who had abortions. Just because I wouldn’t have made their choices didn’t mean I had any right to condemn them. Or even be angry with them. I was jealous – but I wasn’t angry. I was furious that Fate, or God or pure dumb luck had given them a pregnancy they didn’t want when all I wanted was a pregnancy, but I couldn’t take that out on the women.

 

I have no doubt that Donal Walsh meant well, I have no doubt that he wanted to inspire suicidal teens to stay alive. Sadly,  he was not informed enough to do so in a more constructive way.

Time For a Culture Change With Regard to Abuse

Last night, RTE’s Prime Time broadcast an investigative piece on the state of childcare in a number of crèches in the greater Dublin area. I can’t link to the programme because (rightly, in my opinion) RTE has chosen not to make the piece available on iPlayer.

 

We were exposed to children who were yelled at, sworn at, pulled around, held down on mattresses with blankets over their heads to “make them sleep”, left in high-chairs for up to two hours with nothing to do (i.e. after mealtimes and when there were no table-top activities happening), left sitting in soiled clothes because the care worker in her own words “didn’t care” and was punishing the child. Crying babies were left on their own away from adults and other children. There was a basic lack of care or concern for the individual children, as well as a basic lack of any understanding of child development.

 

I completely accept that there are excellent childcare facilities in Ireland. I completely accept, also – that even in the crèches exposed – the fact that these incidences took place does not mean that every child was so treated all of the time. Or that all the women working in these crèches are careless.

 

Those of us who saw the programme, and those who heard about it, were outraged, upset, distressed and angry. I, for one, was not surprised. This, after all, is the culture in Ireland. Time and again we have seen that there is a terrible abuse of power in institutions in Ireland: The Industrial “Schools”; The Magdalene Laundries; Old People’s Homes;  Psychiatric Institutions;  Maternity Hospitals; Schools. Wherever there are vulnerable people, there are people ‘in charge’ to abuse their power.

 

We might not like to face or admit it, but Irish culture seems to be a culture of bullying and abuse. Those in a position of power abuse it. Of course, I don’t mean that every person in a position of power abuses it, but I do mean that it is not a surprising situation any more.

 

We can express all the outrage we like, we can make all the speeches we like, we can write all the laws we like, we can commission all the reports we like – but unless and until there is a cultural shift, nothing will change.

 

 

Mental Health Awareness Month (The ‘Turning’ Post)

The response to my last post was overwhelming – both online and off.  In truth, I’m not out of the woods yet. Yesterday was a good day, though and today hasn’t been too terrible.

Many of you were curious to know what ‘turns’ things around for me.  There are a few things.

I do keep a gratitude journal and that helps. I think. At the same time, acknowledging all the things in my life I am grateful for doesn’t mean that the stuff that troubles me goes away, or troubles me less.

Friends. People just picking up the phone or calling in or sending an email of support and compassion makes a huge difference. I’ve been overwhelmed by expressions of kindness. The concern of others is enormously uplifting.

Acceptance. For years and years and years I used to beat myself up and tell myself I was, somehow, a lesser person for being sad. These days, I allow myself to ‘own’ my sorrow and accept that it is real.  I make an effort to be kind to myself. Taking to bed and letting the sadness lie on me like a blanket actually works better than beating myself up for being that way.

Indulging myself. Knitting. Reading. Walking. Cuddling my girls. All the things I love to do, I do. I don’t belittle myself in my own head by telling myself how bad I am for not doing more ‘worthy’ things.  (Okay, I try not to belittle myself for how bad I am for not doing more ‘worthy’ things).

turn off the radio. I love the radio. It’s my favourite medium. But it’s full of doom, gloom, contention, argument and discontent. When I’m not feeling great , it agitates me (in a bad way) and I feel like I need to respond in a very concrete way to what I’m hearing. My feeling of helplessness is exacerbated. So I stop listening. I put on an audiobook, or listen to music or drama (thank you, BBC Radio 4) instead.

If people ask how I am, I honour myself by being honest and saying ‘not great’.  I’m careful not to overshare and if people want to follow the line of conversation then they can. If they don’t then they don’t have to. I’m mindful that I have no idea (generally) what other people are going through.

I do as little as I can. The house is a mess, I haven’t written as many words as I should have, I haven’t finished making those cushion covers……The list of things I haven’t done is as long as my leg. It serves to do nothing but further overwhelm me. So I take a deep breath and decide what is vital – then break that task down into it’s smallest components and call each of them a job. I don’t set out to clean the house. I set out to empty the dishwasher.

Above everything else, my kids keep me going. I am uncomfortable with the idea of giving someone else the job of keeping me alive, but the truth of it is that there is no one else to mind my kids. If I was hospitalised for a short period, someone would be able to take them for a few days or a week. After that, however, there is no one. I have no family who could take them and the ‘care’ system in Ireland would kill them. Figuratively, if not literally.

Also, a few years ago, I made my children (pictured below) a promise. I had one of the worst times ever and ended up – calmly, logically and with extreme clarity (so I thought) – ‘realising’ that the best thing I could do was kill myself. When I got out of hospital afterwards  promised my kids I’d never leave them until they were adults. I take promises very seriously and only make ones I am sure I can keep.

Beautiful Girls

Perhaps the hardest part of this overwhelming sadness is that there is no end date. I have no idea when it will be over. I can’t say to myself “just another week, Larkin and then it will all be over”  or even “this will be over in six months”. I have no idea when things will improve, but I have leaned to tell   myself that this, too, shall pass. I’m getting better at believing it.