The Wifework of Empathising with Absentee Fathers’ Struggles

Perhaps it’s inevitable that, the same week the Guardian decide to publish a moving, impressive tribute to two young men publicising the toxic and predictable effects of violent masculinity, they’d also ruin all that good work by printing this piece, to destroy my ever-fragile faith in the male of the species.

(Kidding. I love men, me, and I think it’s totally important to keep saying that.)

Julian Furman, the author of the piece that so irritates me, nobly explains his history. ‘I … pressured my wife to start a family,’ he blithely explains, as if ‘pressuring’ someone to risk their health for nine months is a perfectly normal marital dynamic and not something to feel deeply ashamed of doing. But Furman seems to imagine this admission will endear him to readers, coming (as it does) hot on the heels of an overwritten depiction of how he tried to punch his father who, it seems, committed the crime of being concerned about his son’s emotional health. After a lengthy whinge about how awful it is not to be the centre of attention when you have a newborn, and how terrible it must be to actually have to do some of the childcare instead of living separately from your family and calling it ‘sacrifice’, Furman ends with an impassioned plea: men need to be heard. Silence is deadly. To begin, all that is required is for us to talk.

(Except, you know, if it’s your concerned dad trying to talk. If that’s the case, then punch the compassionate shite for trying to initiate a conversation – the bastard!)

Furman’s piece is oozing with self-pity and contradictions, it’s true. And it’s also true, I have to say, that he’s right when he says that reactionary views of masculinity (only he calls them ‘society’s views) are damaging to men as well as women. But what struck me, in this piece passionately if inconsistently defending the importance of open communication, is what is not said.

Furman describes his descent into resentment in terms that sketch out a very large negative space, a very obvious tacit truth that fills his casual omissions. Fathers, we’re told, suffer from the horror of being cast, not as the main actor, but as ‘the best friend in that movie you forget as soon as the credits roll: the support act to fill in the blanks, clean up the mess, do the dishes off-screen’.

I couldn’t help but suspect that, in Furman’s movie, that main actor role was filled, not only by the baby, but also by the other person who cleans up the mess and does the dishes – his child’s mother. I can tell this, because apparently, these are struggles to be understood in terms of ‘the patriarch’ and not ‘the parents’; struggles to be related to his wife’s exhaustion, and not to the baby’s demands.

But, within this daily grind, tell-tale cracks appear. In prose wistfully sighing after Nick Hornby (an unattractive prospect if there ever were one), we’re told of the bottles of scotch lining up on the fridge, the drunken evenings Furman spent out with his dad, the nights passed sitting in parks and on park benches, ‘spaces shared with the homeless and drug-addicted, waiting for time to pass and the pain to end’.

It’s horrific, I’m sure – right until you remember that, in the midst of all of this, Furman’s wife was presumably sitting at home with a newborn baby wonder where the fuck her lazy-arse husband had wandered off to, and why he was leaving her to look after the baby while he chose to get blind drunk and spend their money on booze.

I used to read articles like this, and be filled with feminist fury. I used to condemn people like Furman for their fecklessness, their casual pride in their entitlement, their lazy refusal to do even a fraction of the childcare, and their whiny, self-centred certainty that the worst problem in the world must be people not listening enough to middle-class white men. But a year ago, my partner got pregnant. Three months ago she had a baby. And I got to see what it’s like to feel as if society is treating you as the bumbling idiot second parent whose every attention should be focussed on the capable birth mother. It does feel odd when you’re tired and sleep deprived and emotional, and everyone is asking you anxiously whether or not your partner is ok. It does feel depressing when you’re both exhausted. And it certainly feels frustrating when (and this is an experience Furman presumably doesn’t share) you encounter people who seem to believe you’re somehow both experiencing a cushy maternity leave, and enjoying unprecedented freedom to get back to work exactly like a man.

But what I can’t share with Furman is his absolute, unthinking, unquestioning focus on himself – or his male peers – as the tragic heroes in this one-sided drama. Despite claiming that men become supporting actors in their babies’ early childhood, Furman seems unable to grasp what it might actually mean to take second place to another person – and yet, that’s what’s expected of mothers every day. Furman seems unaware that, for every male parent experience he describes, there is a corresponding female parent, too. He describes – in a tone of high moral outrage – the mother who asked her partner to stay out of the bedroom, as ‘the baby can’t sleep when you’re here’. Yes, terrible. An awful expulsion for a grown man, and no doubt a bit of a sting to feel you can’t even soothe your own baby to sleep. But, at the same time, that’s a story of a woman who is doing the entire night on her own with a baby, a woman whose partner gets a full night’s sleep. Why doesn’t the baby settle when the dad is there? It’s simply not explored. The crucial thing is that dad didn’t get to be in the marital bed. Another man, we’re told ‘took to sleeping in the office to avoid going home’. The poor dear. What a selfish wife he must have had, who was doing round-the-clock care for a baby while her husband chose to absent himself. Another again, ‘closed the door on his life and began again’. Those heroic dads, beginning again.

This article isn’t entirely wrong in its diagnosis of a societal problem with masculinity and fatherhood, nor is it wrong to suspect that we communicate better and more frequently with the parent who gives birth. But its author writes as if he believes that the solution to men who leave their wives to do the lion’s share of childcare, who get drunk and violent, who physically absent themselves from their babies’ homes, is … more emotional support for men. It’s hard not to notice that the healing skills Furman demands are skills typically stereotyped as womanly: listening, empathising, talking. Sure, they’re outsourced (in his case) to a therapist (because, it seems it would be practically unmanly to talk to your own father when he offers). But they’re the skills Furman’s wife – exhausted, overcome – can’t seem to muster up. And, like many a middle-class woman seeking out a cleaning lady to stave off endless battles over which full-time-worker parent should hoover, Furman’s wife sought out a therapist for him. She researched the options, she narrowed down the candidates, she even wrote down the number for him. Furman acknowledges his wife’s exhaustion. But, he suggests, this was only a problem so long as she failed to perform the wifework of empathy and listening, and the lasting issue he identifies is not her unaddressed exhaustion, but his mitigated ‘resentment’.

More on John Rykener

After I finished writing my recent post about a Guardian review of Ackroyd’s new book Queer City, I found myself still turning over thoughts about one of the figures Ackroyd signally misinterprets, the person named in fourteenth century court records as John Rykener.

Rykener’s case (the details of which are available in this link) is one I’ve often used as a teaching example, in varied contexts. It works alongside Piers Plowman, a real-life example of the verbose and bizarre legal material Langland interpolates into his fictionalised London. It works alongside much earlier romances such as Silence or Yde and Olive, which interrogate questions of gender, nature, nurture, and sexual attraction. It works, above all, to remind students new to medieval literature and culture that there is no such thing as ‘the medieval mindset,’ that cherished concept that allows us to hive off medieval writers, thinkers and readers as somehow ‘other’ than ourselves, more homogeneous, and less worth seeing as individuals. Students new to academic study will often reach for ‘the medieval mindset’ (or, my colleagues tell me, ‘the Renaissance mindset,’ or whatever) because it sounds like a grand, self-assured phrase. Rykener’s case helps to demonstrate just how hollow the concept is, because in the space of a few dense lines of legalistic prose, it depicts several vivid – and different – points of view. Reading the case with care and attention, it’s near-impossible to maintain any fixed claims about ‘the medieval mindset’ regarding sex, sexuality, gender, propriety, or any combination thereof.

The court records – written in Latin, not Middle English – suggest some of this complexity, for much of their interest lies in the fact that Latin, unlike Middle (or modern) English, is an inflected language, a language in which gender is rooted into the grammar. In the book I’m writing at the moment, I look at some of the medieval writers who theorised about what this gendered grammar signified. Did it reflect some ‘natural’ order in the universe? Could disruptions to the ‘natural’ order of sexual interaction between dominant, aggressive men and passive, receptive women also throw the ordered structure of language itself into disarray? And if so, how might sexual transgressions threaten the very fabric of the universe, created as it was from the ‘word’ of God?

These questions linger beneath the Latin of Rykener’s account, and take on new significance as we read the medieval scribe struggling to know which pronouns to use for his strange subject. The account is worth thinking about in detail. We begin with the sonorous, formal opening (which I quote in modern English):

On 11 December, 18 Richard 11. were brought in the presence of John Fressh, Mayor. and the Aldermen ofthe City of London John Britby of the county of York and John Rykener., calling [himself] Eleanor, having been detected in women’s clothing, who were found last Sunday night between the hours of 8 and 9 by certain officials of the, city lying by a certain stall in Soper’s Lane” committing that detestable unmentionable and ignominious vice. In a separate examination held before the Mayor and Aldermen about the occurrence, John Britby confessed that he was passing through the high road of Cheap on Sunday between the abovementioned hours and accosted John Rykener, dressed up as a woman, thinking he was a woman, asking him as he would a woman if he could commit a libidinous act with her.

This passage avails itself of plenty of legal jargon and nicely euphemistic phrases, but it fairly breathes its fascination with the scandal of ‘that detestable unmentionable and ignominius vice … [that] libidinous act’. There’s a sense of the personality of the scribe him (almost certainly him) self here, as his pen runs away with his adjectives. Meanwhile, poor John Britby, the second participant in Rykener’s sexual activities, is named not once but multiple times, identified by his place of birth as well as his name, his nose rubbed thoroughly through the muck of a public record of wrongdoing. As Jeremy Golberg convincingly argues, such a detailed and sensational court record suggests further certain glee on the part of the scribe as he exposes a seemingly respectable man brought low.

As the account continues, details of Rykener’s dealings emerge, which make clear that this is no simple case of an isolated incident in a lonely back alley. Several scholars, including Ruth Evans and Jeremy Goldberg, have concentrated on the text’s preoccupation with mercantile interactions and with dishonesty, and Rykener’s reported account of his affairs boasts proudly of the confidence tricks he and the women of his acquaintance perpetrated:

a certain Elizabeth Brouderer first dressed him in women’s clothing; she also brought her daughter Alice to diverse men for the sake of lust, placing her with those men in their beds at night without light, making her leave early in the morning and showing them the said John Rykener dressed up in women’s clothing, calling him Eleanor and saying that they had misbehaved with her.

Interpreting this con relies upon knowledge of the legal penalties for sodomy – understood, in medieval law, as a much wider category than we might think, but certainly including amongst its most serious manifestations sex acts between two men. Perhaps Brouderer and Rykener expected the men in question to see through Rykener’s feminine clothing and to pay up for fear of being exposed as having committed a crime more serious than the ‘mere’ fornication they had in fact carried out with young Alice Brouderer. Or, perhaps Alice’s role was to decoy clients to Rykener, exploiting her greater experience or aptitude in that capacity. But the tell-tale mention of the darkness of the rooms in which Alice encountered the men, and into which Rykener was substituted, makes me suspect the former.

Many studies of the Rykener case stop here, or continue only to shed light on the (fascinating and unpleasant) character of Elizabeth Brouderer, whose name appears elsewhere in the court records, associated with trafficking of women for the sex trade. But the women in the Rykener case seem to me as interesting as the men. What are we to make of the role Alice Brouderer played – a role apparently cooked up by her own mother and her mother’s accomplice? What about ‘Anna, a whore,’ who taught Rykener to have sex ‘as a woman’? What about the many women who suddenly press into Rykener’s account in the last lines, as (apparently eager) sexual conquests of Rykener in his masculine dress?

The crucial issue, for me, is the interesting fact that Rykener never claims to have had sex with women while dressing as a woman (though this is a persistent misreading of the case). Were the sexual tastes of the women of late medieval London distinctly different from those of the men, who seemed to accept, be taken in by, or enjoy, Rykener’s appearance ‘as a woman’? Was Rykener himself imposing some kind of distinction between his activities (a distinction underlined by the fact that all the sex with men appears to have had financial motive, whereas the sex with women seems to have been unpaid)? Or – and this is my favourite reading – are these final details of Rykener’s multiple sexual conquests simply included to add insult to injury in the gleeful account of the tricking of multiple men? After all, Rykener’s account boasts, many men were caught out by Rykener and Brouderer – with Britby only the latest – but the women seem all to have been in on the game.

How much of the Rykener accounts are fact, and how much fiction, we will never know. Students of mine often want to inject certainty into the matter, to claim Rykener as a ‘gay man’ or ‘trans woman’ (interestingly, I’ve far less often seen Rykener claimed as bisexual). It’s tempting – but, I think, misguided – to read the incident as a story of sex workers’ habits accepted and only minimally censured by the authorities (misguided, because we’ve no idea what happened to Rykener, and other court records indicate that pessimism would be a sensible position to take). We’d like to think we can impose modern categories onto the past, that we can start talking not about what Rykener did, said, or wore, but about how Rykener ‘identified’. But this is to flatten out historical specificity, to return to an approach to history as one-dimensional as the presumption that we can identify a ‘medieval mindset’. All I think we can do, is to trace out the currents of differing response to Rykener (or perhaps to the fiction of Rykener). We can look at the ways in which the different men – honourable Yorkshiremen; lascivious friars, suspicious ‘foreign men’ – are depicted as sexual partners. We can look at the various depictions of women, from the seasoned deceiver Elizabeth Brouderer to her seemingly pliable daughter Alice, to the ‘Joan, daughter of John Matthew’ who had sex with Rykener while he was dressed as a man. What emerges from the trial records is not an early snapshot of ‘queer’ London, offering an image of modern-looking people in old-fashioned clothes. It’s something much less stable and static: a sense of the diversity of desires and demands, pressures and expectations, criss-crossing medieval London’s written representation of its own scandalous side.

Ackroyd’s Queer City and the ‘Natural’ Performance of Femininity

A review of Peter Ackroyd’s new book, a history of London’s gay history ranging over an expansive 2000 years and titled Queer City, popped up in the Guardian today, and I read it. Andrew Dickson, the reviewer, makes the determinedly impersonal Ackroyd as much the subject of the review as the book itself, making one suspect that the biography of the man would be rather more interesting that of the city – and perhaps rather less prone to winsome ahistorical speculations.

But what interests me in the review (and the review, not the book itself) is the claim, mid-flow, that ‘unlike many chroniclers of gay culture, Ackroyd doesn’t neglect lesbianism’ (“the theory or the practice, sir?”). The details advanced in supporting evidence were delightfully familiar and expected, and especially so to me, as I read this review fresh from thinking about medieval men’s writings about female same-sex desire. We are told of Georgian dildo-selling shops, the account salaciously hedged about with the trappings of oral culture (‘it is said …’), and we’re reminded of ‘cigarillo smoke-filled Edwardian clubs’. These two anecdotes alone seem to be considered sufficient lip service (have I punned enough?) to the idea of a ‘queer’ city whose population extends beyond men. But they’re almost parodically predictable: the first a practice glossed as recognisably ‘lesbian’ because it uses a prosthetic implement resembling a male body part; the other a community tacitly depicted as such because it overtly resembles the stereotypical smoke-filled masculine equivalent. And these same exact characteristics – lesbianism as a practice dependent on a masculine prosthetic; lesbianism as imitation of masculinity – are also what male medieval writers devoted their energies to speculating about.

It could be that there’s simply nothing new under the sun: Ackroyd’s reviewer, Andrew Dickson, is unwittingly participating in a centuries-long trend of viewing lesbianism as masculinity manqué. But Ackroyd himself is credited with a telling quotation relating to one of the most-hyped medieval characters of the ‘queer city,’ the cross-dressing prostitute Rykener:

‘Rykener called himself Eleanor, and dressed in women’s clothing. He would sometimes be a male for males, sometimes a female for males, sometimes a female for females … He enacted all these roles quite naturally, and was never thought of as being particularly adventurous.’

The details of Rykener’s case have been chewed over plenty of times by scholars from Ruth Karras and David Boyd to Carolyn Dinshaw to Jeremy Goldberg. They’re found in court records (not, as has been pointed out, quite the unbiased source of information we might imagine), which report Rykener’s own account of his career. Ackroyd rather reads into the account, which quite insistently specifies when Rykener acted ‘as a woman’ (invariably, when conning men or prostituting himself to them) and when he acted ‘as a man’ (when sleeping with women – not, so it would seem, for financial gain). There is no implication that Rykener took on his female dress and persona during sexual interactions with women, but rather that various women already participating in the sex trade were well aware of his habits, and helped in pull off his lucrative deceptions.

But what’s telling is Ackroyd’s careful gloss of the behaviour – which, in the Latin, is described with lingering voyeuristic detail – as something Rykener ‘enacted … quite naturally’. To invoke ‘nature’ is a well-worn polemical gesture, of course, and a gesture that often goes unquestioned in modern LGBT activism. To argue that a fourteenth-century prostitute slipped between gender roles and sexual orientations ‘naturally’ is to mingle justifications of history with the justifications of biology. But it doesn’t wash. Rykener’s accusers don’t characterise his actions as natural or unnatural, but more to the point, Rykener’s own account contradicts Ackroyd’s reading. Rykener, we are told:

‘swore …  that a certain Anna, the whore of a former servant of Sir Thomas Blount, first taught him to practice this detestable vice in the manner of a woman. [He] further said that a certain Elizabeth Brouderer first dressed him in women’s clothing …’

The practices of dressing and acting like a woman, and of performing whatever euphemised sex act is intended by the phrase ‘this detestable vice’ (and much ink has been spilled on the question), come not from nature but from careful study and teaching. Specific women helped in the process, each experts in her trade: Anna, a ‘whore,’ and Elizabeth, whose surname ‘Brouderer’ denotes her profession of embroiderer or seamstress. Rykener’s citation of these women’s names may partly be an attempt to spread blame (Elizabeth Brouderer crops up elsewhere in the London court records, and her name might easily have elicited knowing nods from an audience). But it’s also a subtle way of reminding that audience of the artificiality of the performance of femininity. Rykener needed to learn to dress and act like a woman; he may have fooled men, but the women who worked with him were under no illusions whatsoever.

It’s perfectly fair (in my view) for Ackroyd to take a cheerfully magpie-like approach to the ‘queer’ history of London, and fair, too, to put his own spin on the historical records (as plenty of others have before and will again). That’s popular history, and you read it at your own risk. But, in attempting to naturalise ‘queer’ London, Ackroyd instead erases all traces of artificiality from the performance of femininity, naturalising a very different type of gender politics, in which women’s awareness of things men do not notice is simply overlooked.

Having A Baby With Two Mums – Practical Positives

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Nearly two weeks ago, while my daughter was still in hospital, I wrote a post about her birth and my experience of it as a lesbian non-birth mother. That post was read by far more people than I expected, and I’m still replying to people who’re responding to it.
I wrote it because I had to find a way to process what had happened, and because I felt very strongly that it was important to talk about an experience I’d not seen talked about elsewhere – what it’s like to be a lesbian mother (especially, a lesbian non-birth mother) in a busy hospital. I wasn’t sure what reaction to expect.

A few – very few – people did respond the way I’d worried they would, reading no further than the first few sentences and insisting ‘oh, I’m sure it’s just the same for fathers!’. But far more people got in touch to offer support and to make sure we knew that what happened with us wasn’t and shouldn’t be the norm. I’ve been absolutely amazed and impressed by midwives and doctors and nurses who’ve never met me or my partner or my baby, and who still wanted to reassure us. Amazing feminist friends – of both of ours – made sure we felt looked after.

Elisabeth is three weeks old today. She doesn’t (thank goodness) have meningitis, and she came home from hospital after some absolutely amazing, dedicated treatment on a ward that treats newborn babies like her. She has been losing a lot of weight, and we’ve had a slightly grim couple of weeks where we’ve had to wake her every 2.5 hours to feed her specified amounts of breastmilk, expressed breastmilk and formula – over a period of an hour or two, during which she would typically return said milk to us with additional gifts of stomach acid and horrified cries – according to what each midwife or health visitor hoped would keep us from going back into hospital. But, as of yesterday, she has stopped losing weight, is gaining weight and – best of all – we don’t have to wake her any more when she’s sound asleep in order to feed her! Hallelujah. We’re even enjoying her screaming!

In this post, I want to talk about the really lovely things that happened. That starts with the ward that got Elisabeth out of hospital. The huge difference here was consistency – and that’s a NHS funding issue. Instead of constantly being told one thing by one person only to have another one rush in to say something different, there were high enough staffing levels that we could be given a plan. I couldn’t stay overnight on this ward, but was encouraged to be there for all of the visiting hours. Everyone made clear that the parents’ room was intended for me as well as for Emma – in fact, they seemed surprised I’d ask. We had some brilliant support here, and especially from a hugely compassionate woman who immediately understood how to reassure Emma and how to encourage her with establishing breastfeeding, and who took the time to put us at ease by acknowledging we were a lesbian couple and casually mentioning that her mother was also married to a woman, and asking us whether the baby’s dark hair came from the donor, or because Emma carried a baby conceived from one of my eggs.

Some people, I know, seem to think this approach would be unwelcome. A lot of people act as if it’s almost rude to talk about the elephant in the room, the fact that here are two women having a baby. I’ve had quite funny conversations with people in the past, who practically walk into the conversation with a flashing light saying must not mention the sperm donor! over their heads. Of course, some people probably don’t want to talk about this stuff. But, in my limited and partial experience, more people do. Going to a fertility clinic can be a sad experience for heterosexual couples – the system is geared up to deal very gently and sensitively with people who have gone through loss and disappointment, people who may have just learned they can never have a child in the way they always expected they could, and people whose identities within their relationships are under profound stress. Awareness that fertility treatment itself might very well not provide any help, hangs unspoken over every conversation. For us, obviously, it was different. Deciding to have a child and picking a clinic felt rather exciting, and sitting in the waiting room looking at images of newborns felt positively romantic. So, we were glad when people – including the lovely midwives on the induction ward at the hospital – felt able to chat to us about this. If you think about it, it’s a variation on the normal chatter everyone enjoys around a baby. Does he have your hair? Will she have your chin? Do you think he’ll be tall like you? These are nice questions, and I’m glad the people who asked them felt able to do that.

After the hospital, another lovely experience was seeing the registrar when we registered Elisabeth’s birth. We turned up expecting to have to wade through reams of paperwork and acres of documentation we’d brought, but in the event we were in and out in a few minutes, with only the basic necessities noted – and the registrar was very excited as we were the first female couple she’d registered under the new law that allows us both to be parents. This brings me on to what I wanted to set out for people reading this post. When we registered Elisabeth, we both got to be on her birth certificate, because we are both her parents. And this is something that many people don’t know you can do. Here are the legal facts (bizarre and delightful as they are):

  • If you are a lesbian couple and married (or, even if you’re a heterosexual couple and married), a child born within the marriage is presumed to be the child of both spouses, unless established otherwise. This delightfully eighteenth-century sounding law still holds.
  • If you are (like us) neither married nor in a civil partnership, you can still put both names on the birth certificate, like an unmarried heterosexual couple. You must be treated at a registered clinic and you must use sperm from a registered donor bank, and you must fill in paperwork to acknowledge that you plan to be co-parents.
  • If you do this, your child will be able to trace his or her sperm donor aged 18. The donor is entitled to refuse, but our clinic (like most clinics) provides a statement from the donor. Our donor left a really nice message explaining that he had donated because his wife had difficulty conceiving (you can do this to offset costs), and saying that family was important to him. We could relate to this and thought our daughter would appreciate understanding his perspective.

The legal side of things is surprisingly easy, but not very well known – a lot of people have told me I’m not the baby’s legal mother, or have been concerned I (or Emma) would not have legal rights. But it’s amazing to me how quickly laws have changed. For all of the time I was in school, Section 28 – the law that made it illegal for schools to promote (or, in practice, discuss) ‘pretended’ family relationships between two women – was in force. That law was only repealed in England in 2003, when I was 19 and Emma was 22. Such a lot has changed since then. More will change. This isn’t a typical ‘Easter’ post, but for us it feels appropriately like a new beginning.

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Tiffany Dufu’s ‘Drop the Ball’: Women Blaming Themselves, Again

A quick post, in irritation. Today, I read in the Guardian that women should expect more of their partners, and less of themselves. Not terrible advice (though not really a revelation either). The article is a puff piece for a book I never plan to buy, written by new mother and bringer of epiphanies to the oblivious, Tiffany Dufu. In her book, so we are told, Dufu describes her revelatory experience navigating the return to work after her first child’s birth, and her growing realisation that her partner would have to do some of the work around the home, since they both had full time jobs. The experience that brought on this revelation sounds depressingly familiar. Back from a full day of work, while struggling with breastfeeding difficulties, Dufu heard her husband return home to the meal she had prepared, past the dry-cleaning she had picked up, only to dump his dirty plates in the sink for her to clean.

I sympathise with Dufu. As I have sympathised with, quite literally, dozens of friends who’ve talked about variations on this theme. It’s the subject of Susan Maushart’s brilliantly incisive, well-researched book Wifework, which discusses the imbalances of male-female work around the home, backed up with some interesting statistics and studies. But, where Maushart mostly analyses and uncovers, Dufu – or, at least, the author of her puff piece – falls back on a cloyingly upbeat set of conclusions. Women who work too much around the home – conditioned, by their upbringing, into ‘Stepford wives’ (I really wish this term would die a death, incidentally) – should take lessons from (who else?) their husbands. Apparently, once called upon to act, Dufu’s husband turned out to be practically a domestic superman, marshalling children to school in perfect order and discovering clever short-cuts to domestic work Dufu had never found out. The article confides:

‘One of the big lessons she learned was that when you drop a ball and your partner picks it up, you have to let him pick it up his way.’

In Dufu’s case, this meant letting her partner cook the same meal for a week, which doesn’t sound terribly like picking up the ball to me. It sounds more like fucking up. And fucking up is, of course, occasionally absolutely fine. We should probably all be better at doing a half-arsed job and cutting ourselves a break for it. But let’s not pretend it’s the same thing as, well, not fucking up. Shall we? Because one imagines that, in the end, eating the same meal for a week is actually not a great thing.

I’m irritated by this article, not because I don’t recognise that both it and the book it promotes, speak to a genuinely hard choice a lot of women face: the pinch between social pressure to be superwoman and the knowledge that their partner (whether deliberately or obliviously, whether through lack of ability or firm belief in the triviality of domestic tasks) will only step up to do a fraction of the work that is needed. I’m irritated because this revelation is still presented as something women need to learn – and moreover, something women need to learn from men.

Dufu refers to what she was struggling with as ‘home control disease,’ as if the problem in her life were a virulent organism poisoning her, from which her saintly husband saved her, with his panacea of half-arsed domestic help. It would be nice to think that, every now and again, we could look back to our feminist foremothers, who diagnosed a very different disease, and prescribed a very different solution, which didn’t involve requiring women to blame themselves for the pressures on them.

Women’s Strategies of Memory: Representations in Literature and Art (CFP)

I’ll be blogging and talking more about this over the coming months, but I’m really excited to be able to share a project I’ve been working on with the brilliant Dr Emma Bérat. We’re both interested in gender and memory, and so we (and by we, I mean, mostly her, while I was an enthusiastic and eager sidekick/cheerleader for our project) have drafted a proposal for a couple of sessions of papers for Leeds IMC in 2018. If you’re interested, have a look below – and please share the CFP far and wide, as we’re really hoping to bring together a diverse group of scholars, and especially to interest people working beyond our own specific disciplines.

Here you go!

Call for Papers for panel(s) proposal at Leeds IMC 2018, 2-5 July

Memory, in the middle ages as now, was widely accessible to women as means of personal and political influence. Scholarship on the strategic and technical employment of memory in the middle ages has principally explored men’s practices. This panel focuses on representations of medieval women’s deliberate and strategic uses of memory in literature, art, and historical narrative.

We invite papers from any discipline, region and medieval period, which consider any aspect of the representation of women’s memory. We are particularly interested in women who perform remembering, forgetting, or recounting past events as a means of public or political power; and who manipulate histories or identities to construct or reconstruct the past, or to influence the memories of other characters. We also hope to explore women’s less conscious strategies of memory, such as forgetting as a way of compartmentalising traumatic emotions. Reexaminations of women who are accused (by other characters or the narrator) of errors of memory, such as forgetting, deliberate ignorance or manipulation of record, are also welcome.

Please contact Lucy Allen (lucyallen505@gmail.com) and Emma Bérat (eoloughl@uni-bonn.de) with an abstract of approximately 100 words and a brief biography by 30 July 2017.

My daughter’s birth

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This post is a bit different from my usual blogging, and it’s long, but I’m writing it because I think it’s important for the experiences I’m writing about to be discussed. Last Sunday morning – Mothering Sunday – my partner Emma gave birth to our baby daughter Elisabeth. Elisabeth is, of course, delightful and gorgeous, wise and mature beyond her years, judicious in her calculated emissions and possessed of a frown promising Socratean wisdom. I’m very proud of her, and of her mama, who was and is absolutely amazing.

However, they both had a rough ride to get here. Emma had a complicated pregnancy. Two sweeps failed to get her labour started, although they got her dilated to a centimetre, and on Thursday 23rd (her due date), she went in to hospital for medicated induction of labour. 48 hours of painful contractions later, she was still only just over a centimetre dilated. Her waters were broken and she was put on a drip to induce contractions. Several hours later she was still only just three centimetres. By Saturday night, she was in a lot of pain, and eventually had an epidural, which worked. She became fully dilated in a very short time, and by the early hours of Sunday morning she was in a lot of pain again, and ready to push. Emma pushed for an hour, but the baby was barely moving down the birth canal as she was lying back to back with Emma, with her head tilted at an angle. Meanwhile, Emma’s heart rate was regularly spiking into the dangerous range, and at one stage spiking higher than the baby’s heart rate. After an hour, it was found that Emma had a temperature, and because of the danger to the baby, we were told she had to deliver as soon as possible. After a failed forceps delivery, Emma had an emergency c section, and Elisabeth was delivered (wiggling and crying!) at 7.58 am, almost three days and 70 hours after induction of labour.

Initially, Elisabeth seemed fine, and Emma was in worse shape. Both were put on antibiotics for the presumed infection causing Emma’s temperature to rise, through cannulas in their hands. Soon, however, Elisabeth started struggling: she was failing to feed, and when she latched on to the breast she wasn’t strong enough to carry on sucking. She had swallowed a lot of amniotic fluid during the section and was constantly coughing and vomiting it up. Her crying was weak and she never really slept, although she closed her eyes a lot. Both she and Emma were monitored, with checks for different things every few hours or minutes. By Monday, Elisabeth was very sleepy, and refused to feed from breast, bottle, cup or even syringe, while Emma was finding it very hard to get a position to breast feed as she was in a lot of pain from her c section and forceps, and Elisabeth’s cannula in her hand was obviously also painful when she brushed up against Emma’s body. She kept trying to pull it out (succeeding twice), and had to have it re-inserted, which was difficult to see. At this point, Emma was on a cocktail of drugs including codeine and morphine, which was making her very anxious and managing her pain very unevenly. In the middle of the night, tests came backs showing Elisabeth’s viral count was abnormally high. She was taken for a lumbar puncture, where spinal fluid is taken with a needle, and we were warned she might have viral menigitis or a related infection. Over the next day, Elisabeth became worse, and had to be given a nasal tube to feed, although she was vomiting up a lot of her feeds. She became very sleepy and floppy. Her viral count had increased again, and she was put on more, stronger antibiotics.

We seem to have been lucky. Yesterday, Elisabeth became to improve. Some tests are back – some are not – but she seems to be getting much better. Today, she was able to cry (loudly!), and was much more alert and engaged, and she drank a good amount. Emma, who had been painfully expressing colostrum, got her milk in, and, amazingly, Elisabeth managed to go entirely onto breast feeding today. Around midday she pulled her own nasal tube out (!), but so far it hasn’t needed to be replaced as she hasn’t needed top-up feeds. She might be able to come home quite soon.

Most of what I’m describing here, though it’s horrible, is not ‘my’ experience alone. The labour isn’t my experience at all, and a huge number of people have got in touch to share stories of their experiences of difficult births and newborn baby illnesses, and to reassure us that we will soon forget quite how horrible and frightening all of this has been.

What I wanted to post about, though, is a slightly separate strand of experience. It’s, obviously, not the most traumatic part. But it is an experience which, unlike the complicated labour or Elisabeth’s illness, is one I’ve never read about. No one got in touch to share stories. But lots of women will have had this experience, and so I want to explain what happened, partly so women in my situation can be prepared, and partly because I think the medical professionals were saw were really completely unaware of what was going on.

Emma’s pregnancy gave both of us a tiny warning call about how most people interpret our relationship. Everyone was loudly surprised Emma was having a baby, not me. A pretty typical illustration of that attitude was our (lovely, and otherwise highly competent) fertility clinic, who made us fill in forms twice as they were sure we’d filled in the ‘wrong’ section for birth mother and partner, and then still managed to get confused about which of us planned to get pregnant and to run blood tests for the mother-to-be on my blood, not Emma’s. Responses from people we knew ranged from casual surprise to outright questioning, and even our midwife (again: otherwise lovely) thought it was perfectly ok to break off in the middle of our booking-in visit to ask why I hadn’t got pregnant. I will say, at this point, that while I know infertility and pregnancy loss attract insensitive comments across the board, I think people are particularly bad at assuming that, if you’re in a lesbian relationship and not pregnant, it must have been purely a fun choice you made.

These sorts of comments had made both of us very aware that 9 people out of 10 will assume I ought to be the pregnant and maternal partner, while Emma strikes them as less likely to want to be pregnant. So we had become a little used to misunderstandings. We thought we were prepared. We weren’t.

A basic issue was access. In the hospital where Emma gave birth, partners must leave the ward to go to the loo or to eat (food can be brought for labouring women, but if you want to bring your partner something at a different time of day, or to bring her drinks, you need to go to buy them). This means that when you come back to the ward, you press a buzzer and wait for someone to hear the buzzer, see you on the camera they have at reception, and ask you who you’re coming to see. Each time, I faced a barrage of questions and misunderstandings. No, you can’t come in, no visitors. Who are you? No, who are you? No, who are you coming to see? No, you can’t come to see your partner, he is not allowed in. No. Eventually, I would be let in. But, also, it was fairly clear that sometimes, whoever was watching the camera would see me (a woman) waiting at the door and simply not answer – I could tell this because several times, when I had been waiting, a man would turn up behind me, and the door would be buzzed open for him. Twice, a midwife came hurrying to intercept me at this point, insisting I wasn’t allowed in. The longest wait was nearly half an hour.

This was stressful, because I was genuinely worried about Emma while I was gone. She was very upset, in a lot of pain, and not remotely compos mentis because of the codeine and gas and air she had been given – and when Emma is in pain, she is often silent or incomprenhsible, so I needed to be there. I was also, of course, worried about missing the birth. As a result, I more or less stopped eating and drinking so that I could stay on the ward.

Throughout all of this time, new people – several midwives, doctors and nurses – came and went. Most of them wanted to know who I was, understandably. But many of them were not satisfied with a simple ‘who are you,’ and repeated questions. Some shut doors in my face; others refused to speak to me and spoke entirely and only to Emma, even when there were questions I could answer, and even when Emma actually asked them to ask me. This was important, because as the pain and contractions became stronger, Emma was finding it hard to talk and push.

Throughout Emma’s induction, we had been told that a c-section was a likely outcome. We’d known for a long time a section might be needed, as Emma’s sister had preeclampsia and had had to have one, and Emma was being monitored for the same condition. Each time, we discussed it and Emma told me she wanted to try for a vaginal birth, but knew it might not be possible. By the time Emma was in active labour, we were well aware it might come to a section. But when Emma had been pushing for an hour, a surgeon came to talk to her. He questioned me aggressively about who I was, and then spoke entirely to Emma (who was contracting every minute or so). She was finding it very hard to reply, and feels that he could have communicated much more clearly, as he constantly trailed off with statements such as ‘of course, vaginal birth is ideal …,’ without completing his sentence. At the same time, the midwife was telling Emma when to push, and Emma was asking him to stop talking so she could push instead of talking. He explained that he wanted to attempt a forceps delivery, but thought there were likely to be problems with that. He wanted her to sign consent to a forceps and episiotomy procedure and also to a c-section, so that if the forceps failed, the c-section could be done immediately. Emma asked if she could avoid the episiotomy and forceps, and have a c-section. This seemed reasonable, as we’d been given to understand the c-section had been an option for around 18 hours at this point, and Emma had been reassured by previous doctors that she could simply say yes, and they would do it. But this surgeon continued to insist that a c-section was, of course, not ideal, and vaginal delivery was ideal, and Emma needed to consent to both at the same time. Emma kept asking the midwife if she could push now. I could understand what she was saying, and attempted to explain it to him: that she wanted a section and not the forceps and episiotomy. He ignored me. Emma was coerced to sign the consent as we knew the baby was at risk if she did not deliver.

Emma was taken to theatre, and I was taken to the male partners’ room to be given some scrubs to wear. In theatre, the surgeon attempted to turn the baby with his hand. A colleague asked whether it was likely he could deliver using forceps. He replied ‘no, but the mother is very keen for a vaginal delivery’.

I was utterly shocked. I didn’t manage to say anything (this all happened very fast, and at this point I was very worried about Emma, who was seriously out of it, very scared and rambling, and very white with a racing heartbeat). The surgeon began the c-section. His phone alarm was going off; he asked his colleagues to ignore the music. Chattily, he asked Emma whether she’d had other surgery, as she had some scar tissue (Emma hasn’t had any surgery, and he had asked this already). Emma panicked, noticeably, but wasn’t really able to answer. He continued, casually, to advise her that she should really think about future pregnancies, and leave at least a year before conceiving again. (This advice isn’t stupid or wrong – and we did know already – but it was an utterly bizarre thing to say mid-procedure to a woman clearly terrified and not compos mentis. Especially since, as Emma points out, it is unlikely she would get tipsy one night and fall into a fertility clinic by accident …).

When the baby was out, I immediately went to see her being checked (as we’d agreed). I had been told I could take my phone into theatre and I took a quick picture and took it to Emma, as many people had told us that mothers who have emergency sections can often feel both very frightened about how the baby is when they can’t see it immediately after birth, and very disconnected later on when they don’t remember the early moments well.

At this point, the staff in the room were swapping over, and new staff discouraged me from holding the baby or doing skin-to-skin contact (again, something Emma and I had discussed, in the event she had a section). When we were taken to the recovery room, several medics spoke to us in succession, but addressed only Emma, both with congratulations and with questions, many of which she still wasn’t able to answer well, and some of which frightened her as she was panicking about some of the surgeon’s comments, which she hadn’t understood. One group, hearing Emma refer to ‘Lucy,’ assumed it was the baby and confused Emma further; another laughed merrily when they realised the mistake and told me that – in my scrubs – they had assumed I was another midwife.

After this – while it was becoming obvious that something was wrong with Elisabeth – we were taken to the post-delivery ward, and then moved within the ward. Here, it was very noisy and chaotic, and many checks and questions were repeated multiple times by different medics, so it was hard to understand who was who. However, we still faced the same problems: many medics ignored me, refused to listen to my answers, drew the curtain to shut me out of Emma’s cubicle, or became confused when Emma referred to me. Here, as in the delivery ward, partners had to go outside to use the toilet or to eat, and whenever I went to the dining room to collect food for my partner, I faced a barrage of angry refusals. When I tried to get back onto the ward, we had the same old confusions. Several times, I was asked to leave as it was ‘after visiting hours’. At this point, Emma and I had had very little sleep for three days, and neither of us had eaten or drunk properly. Emma was in a lot of pain. We both spent a lot of time crying and I think it would be fair to say neither of us was really processing anything very well – we were shocked and not yet quite aware how badly shocked we were.

On this ward, I broke down a few times and tried to say why I was upset, as I was very much aware of a constant sense that there was no place for me there. Many medics simply assumed I was breaking the rules and should not be on the ward, and it was often too chaotic and noisy even to correct them before they moved on. At one point, when Emma had explained to a midwife that I was her partner, I ended up in tears saying that I felt I constantly had to justify that I was the baby’s mother. The midwife – who must have meant well – immediately exclaimed that I was just stressed: of course I shouldn’t feel that way! She probably thought this was kindly and helpful. As it happens, though, I have never felt I wasn’t my baby’s mother. It just didn’t occur to me. It feels peculiar when people ask me whether I feel less her mother because I didn’t carry her. And, of course, this response, despite being well meant, was effectively a denial of the experience I’d been having for the past four days, which was that I had to justify that I was the baby’s mother. I had to justify that, not to myself for reasons of my own emotional inadequacies or struggles, but to all of her colleagues who had failed to accept it.

Later on, the morning after we had found out that Elisabeth was being tested for viral meningitis and when Emma was having a particularly bad time with pain and had been crying constantly, I went to fetch Emma some breakfast. The women serving refused. Your partner is not allowed food. Your partner is a he? Your partner is a he? He is not allowed food! Look: there is a sign! Really, this is not allowed, you must not try to ask. I explained, increasingly upset. My partner is a woman. She had a baby on Sunday. I repeated it several times. Eventually I burst into tears, and the server finally understood, crowing Oh! You’re so sensitive! Of course, she can have some toast!

The last time I actively became angry was when one of the senior midwives lectured me about what ‘the mother’ should do, and what the baby needed from ‘the mother’. When I snapped that I was the baby’s mother, she was very apologetic. And things did change then. Not completely; not to the point that I could get onto the ward without justifying myself (I still found that, often, the answer to my intercom buzzer was a calm ‘no, dear, no one is allowed in now,’ which often meant I had to buzz again simply in order to explain that I was, in fact, a partner and not the visitor they assumed was trying to come in outside visiting times). But things did change a bit.

Yesterday, we were moved onto a ward that provides care for Elisabeth, hopefully until she is well enough to come home. It is a much less busy ward, and they have been wonderful.

I wanted to write this post because, although it sounds quite negative, I wish I had been more prepared for what happened in terms of the way we were treated as a same-sex couple. I had been prepared to advocate for Emma in labour. We had discussed a lot of things. We knew, especially, that Emma copes best with pain when she can be allowed to speak as little as possible. We knew she would probably become slightly incoherent. We discussed possibilities, such as c-section and skin-to-skin contact post-birth. In order to be a good birth partner, I should have been hydrated and well fed. I should have been calm. I should have been able to explain Emma’s decisions. Of course, at times, medics would have had to talk to Emma alone, and to ignore me. Of course, at times, I might get things wrong. And of course, how I was feeling was immensely less important than how Emma was feeling (although, even in labour, Emma was reasonably aware I hadn’t really eaten properly for three days, and because  she is a big softie, she was worried). But, despite these caveats, I came away feeling that the experiences I’m describing was cumulatively quite a big issue for me (and some issue for Emma and Elisabeth), which was totally avoidable.

Almost every single person who did or said something I’ve mentioned here, clearly did it without meaning to do anything wrong. They meant well. Some of them even thought they were being comforting and inclusive to us as a lesbian couple or to me as a non-birth mother. None of them could shake the belief that they were seeing a solitary moment of overreaction, or an understandable and isolated bit of stress. Cumulatively, though, there was a real impact. It’s hard to realise that, if we had been a straight couple, Emma might have avoided a forceps delivery she didn’t want (as the surgeon might have listened to me explaining what she was saying). She might have been better looked after in labour, which I feel horribly guilty about. She and Elisabeth might have done better after birth.

I wish I’d anticipated some of these problems. I’m writing this partly so that people can share this post and, hopefully, spread a bit of awareness about the impact of seemingly trivial decisions and assumptions by people in the medical profession. I’m also writing because there are practical points I wish I’d known, for people in my situation.

  • Get used to correcting people and not laughing off the ‘oh, I had no idea you were the partner!’ comments. I was so used to not making a fuss, and not drawing attention to my sexuality, that I wasn’t primed to do it when it mattered.
  • Be aware that you may forget to over-explain when you’re stressed. When Emma was in labour, I know I sometimes answered the question ‘who are you?’ with my name, or ‘I’m Emma’s partner’ or ‘I’m here to see my partner,’ none of which were specific enough. It’s quite possible that, had I reeled off a fluent explanation ‘I’m a lesbian coming to see my lesbian partner who is a lesbian mother who had a baby,’ people might have understood more quickly.
  • Don’t trust your birth plan to do the communicating. We had, naively, put down what seemed (at the time) like an exhibitionistic amount of detail about the fact I was Emma’s partner and I was female. No one glanced at the plan, and even people who did actually know I was Emma’s partner, tended to forget in the heat of the moment (including a midwife who asked me to ‘get the dad’).

This post has been quite depressing, I am aware, and I want to end on a positive note. I had no idea, before last week, that I would be so utterly delighted with my baby. Of course, I knew she would be wonderful. But people do tell you that you’ll struggle to bond, or you’ll be less important, or you’ll really have to work to get a relationship with the baby. I don’t think this is true. Babies, even ill ones, see and smell and take in a huge amount. They will, very soon, recognise their mothers (or, I’m sure, fathers). It was much less than 12 hours before Elisabeth would settle down for me before she would reliably do so for a stranger. She will follow me and Emma around the room with her eyes, and she will go quiet when we sing or talk (she has been listening to us talking for months on the inside!). And she is lovely, and increasingly able to respond and focus (blurrily) on us, and to do all the things that babies do, which evolution dictates must make us become huge bundles of hormonal response and gushy emotion. It’s great fun.

If you can, please do share this post. I think it matters, and I hope you’ll agree that it does show why seemingly small, trivial, well-meant heteronormative decisions are actually not just funny, coincidental or harmless: they mount up.

Thanks!

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