By the Way, You Don’t Have to Breed

Caprice

As a mother of two I’m going to let you in on a secret closely guarded by the parents of the world: having kids is overrated, and you don’t have to do it. No matter how many women (it’s always the women) accost you at dinner parties demanding to know why your uterus remains a thing of emptiness, I will tell you unequivocally that the motive for their probing is rage around the following things: you – unlike them – look fresh and rested; you – unlike them – will not be going home to pay the babysitter after this dull dinner party but heading straight to somewhere fabulous where you’ll imbibe alcohol and have sexual relations and lastly (and this is a biggie) your vagina is intact. Nothing makes mothers madder than the idea of your intact vagina.

These things about you fill parents of the world with hateful, jealous fury. How dare you sleep in the nighttime and spend your weekends on the beach? Why aren’t you and your partner also having fights in the park at 6:45am and walking up and down the driveway frantically pushing a pram while its contents scream unrelentingly and trying to eat a restaurant meal holding a fractious, miniature fembot? No no no no, you look far too contented. Quick! You need to lose that contraceptive device yesterday and also be very fat and very, very tired like them. But really, here’s the thing – and I’ve done it long enough to know – in spite of what people seem hell-bent on telling you there are in fact gazillions of worthwhile ways to spend the days of your life that have nothing to do with bringing children forth into the world.

Off the top of my head I can think of 137 more interesting things than the school run, for example. If I could clock up the hours, months, probably years I’ve spent waiting for someone short in stature to finish ballet/soccer/recorder lessons I’m certain I would keel over and die of dismay. And I’m not saying I don’t like having children. I adore my girls and for me, for whatever reason, mothering was always on the agenda. But I don’t pretend it’s not a job without moments of mind-altering tediousness and that there aren’t days I want to say to my offspring, you know what? You are the two most annoying people I’ve ever met on this planet. I’m off to drink piña coladas somewhere sane like a lunatic asylum. Sayonara, midgets, and good luck working the stove. 

But, unlike other job descriptions that looked good on paper, this one you can’t resign from. So instead you hire a babysitter, put on extra concealer and try to convince innocent, child-free people that they don’t know what they’re missing because safety in numbers and all. Many people genuinely love having kids and that’s cool and for (almost) every moment you go what the actual fuck under your breath there are moments that are fun and rewarding. But for those people sitting on the fence or who suspect there might be things that are better and more fun to do with their lives than being parents I say, yes! There are! Don’t believe the hype; don’t listen when they imply it’s your duty and that you’re somehow lesser of a woman/human being if you think it’ll be more interesting running a large, successful company than watching a toddler poo. Or traveling the world and living in different countries and spending your days having adventures with sexy men you don’t have to marry.

Lord knows, there are enough women out there breeding prolifically because they don’t have a choice (and, frankly, are often barking as a result). You don’t have to be one of them. You are fully, totally entitled to do something different and extraordinary with your life. And I commend singletons and couples who have the courage and insight to know parenthood is not for them. It’s not an easy choice to make, but only because the people around them make it hard. People hate it when other people make different choices. They get anxious and confused and start asking themselves questions they would rather not know the answers to. But I say, fuck everyone else and the family car they arrived in. Take your intact vagina and go conquer the world.

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How Hard it is to Truly Be Okay with Yourself

Me in Montagu. 43 years old, no makeup, no highlights, sun damage and laugh lines. It's okay. It's me in Montagu.
Me in Montagu. 43 years old, no makeup, no highlights, sun damage and laugh lines. It’s okay. It’s me in Montagu.

Some months ago we spent a few days in one of my favourite places in the world, a house high in the mountains outside the Karoo town of Montagu. I love it there because there is nothing to do but swim in the dam, go for walks, read, eat and sleep. I can’t get agitated on social media because there’s no signal and my partner, removed from email, can’t worry about work. So we drink wine and make fires and sit long under the stars and our children are happy and it’s heaven. On our first evening there we came back from a late-afternoon dip and, as the shadows of the pines starting getting long and it was time for that first glass of wine I put on a sweater, went into the bathroom and automatically reached for my lip-liner. Because we were going to have drinks and snacks and chat and admire the view. Because I had been in the water and my makeup had washed off. Because… I’m a girl and if I don’t look pretty? Well, that’s a problem. I saw my reflection in the mirror, a woman of 43 with two children and a career and opinions and a brain and I looked away, out the window, at the trees and the big, blue mountain and I thought what the fuck am I doing?

Here I am in a remote holiday house with my husband and two daughters – the people who know and love and get me better than anyone in all the world – and I’m putting on makeup? It was a strange and sad moment where all the terrible, messed up messages I have internalised during my years on this earth hit me in my gut. I put the lip-liner back and went outside and looked out over the beautiful valley and tried to remember the incidences in my life that had led me to believe so doggedly in my own unworthiness. And how, in this world, I was going to save my daughters from the same fate. I remembered the earliest message where, compared to my cousin of the same age, I was labelled by family members as the ‘clever one.’ And, as any girl will know, you don’t want to be the clever one.

I remembered, many years later, a boy I was desperately in love with telling my best friend at the time he didn’t like me anymore because I was ‘fat’. I was 15 at the time and while I was never skinny, when I look at pictures of myself at that age I was definitely not fat. Still – I was mortified and ashamed, and it was the first time I have a clear memory of declaring war on my body – reading up on diets; taking small green slimming pills that made my heart race; sprinkling artificial sweetener on my All Bran Flakes and weighing myself every day. The idea that there was something wrong with me had taken root in my unconscious mind, and this belief would become more pronounced as time went by.

And, while I have learnt a lot in my time on earth, this is one thing I don’t really know how to change. How do you unlearn the negative messages that have been reinforced your whole life long? How do you decide you’ve had enough of this nonsense and you’re going to accept yourself just as you are – if not for yourself than for the amazing, clever girl children you’re preparing to send into the world? I read something once that posed the simple question: ‘when will you be thin enough?’ and I wept. A while back a girlfriend said something to me that was very scary and very true. She said, ‘your children don’t watch you with their eyes; they watch you with their whole being.’ I can tell my daughters what I think – propagate feminist values; go on about women’s rights; insist that no matter what they look like they are important and they have value, but when they see me unhappy because my jeans are tight; when they watch me eat salad while everyone else has pasta – all the words amount to nothing.

Last week my 8-year-old brought her school photos home. I could see she was unhappy. She sat beside me on the couch in silence and I let her be until I saw the big tears running down her cheeks. It took a while for her to admit that she was crying because one of her school friends had said she was fat and now that she looked at the photos of herself, she knew that it was true. I turned the TV off and I asked her sister to give us a few minutes alone. I didn’t really know what to say, to be honest. It was one of those parenting moments when you want to go, ‘hey, you know that manual? Now would be a good time.’

I opened the iPad and showed her pictures of herself taken at a recent ballet eisteddfod. I asked her what she thought of that little girl in the pictures. We found more pics, holiday snaps taken on the beach. I asked her if she agreed with what her friend had said. My daughter is little; there is no fat on her body. She had to concede that what had been said to her might not, after all, have been true. And then we talked about the fact that everybody is different. Some people are shorter, others are tall, some have dark hair and some are blonde, and some people will be heavier while others are lighter, and that the way you look has no bearing on who you are. I reminded her of the importance of always being kind and remembering that the outside of people says nothing about the inside. And she cheered up and started smiling again and we went and made hot chocolate, but it was a sobering moment which made me wonder, in spite of my best efforts, if I have failed miserably at my job.

Because the truth is, while I’ll order the Hunga Busta burger, throw back beer like the best of them and roll my eyes at women who succumb to cosmetic surgery, that’s only part of me. There’s another part, and one I’m not proud of, that looks at herself in a bikini and feels dismay. That has to beat down the guilt of devouring an XL portion of fish and chips on a Sunday in Kalk Bay. That secretly, while planning a holiday, determines to lose 3kgs so I can wear all the clothes I like. And who is very much a product of her environment. And what if it’s that version my daughters really see? How do I project an image of okayness when it’s not something I always feel?

But then, more than projecting a Stepford Wives-type image of perfection (which I could never achieve anyway) I’ve always been a firm believer in leveling with your kids and being honest no matter what. I mean, they see through your lies anyway. Could it be that there is room for ambiguity and contradiction in this ongoing conversation? After all, little about life is simple. Maybe if we keep talking and I ask them the right questions their (really awesome and strong) sense of themselves will be their lifeline when society tells that them the way they are is wrong. And maybe – this is my hope, anyway – because of the way they’ve been raised, they’ll be better equipped than I was to bounce back from the blows their self-esteem will suffer. For me, all I can do is put the makeup bag down, take a deep breath and go hang with the people who love me.

The Big Fat Lie of the High Fat Diet

Around six months ago a very highly regarded professor of nutrition from a very highly regarded Cape Town institute came by our place of work to deliver a quite astonishing message. And what he said to the hundred-plus women (mostly young) was that pretty much everything we have ever been taught about food, dieting and weight loss was garbage. All those salads, all those dry crackers and all that low-calorie everything? Throw it in the bin and start all over because (cue: drum roll) fat was the new skinny. Yes, folks, you heard right – FAT was the new SKINNY.

While this wasn’t entirely news to some of us chronic dieters who had the Atkins/Dukan/whatever-that-other-guy’s-name-was T-shirt in a crumpled heap at the bottom of our cupboards, somehow hearing it told again by this passionate, inspiring man whose family history of diabetes was eradicated by replacing all carbs with fats brought the theory to life again in a new and novel way. And what’s more – not only did he assure us that replacing our cos lettuce lunch with crispy bacon would melt away those unwanted kilos, he also said that, contrary to what we had long been led to believe, exercise is not the way to go. Because why? It makes you hungry and then you eat more. That’s what he said.

Now, when you tell a bunch of weight-conscious women that the answer to their lifelong battle with muffin tops lies in skipping the gym and lolling about on the couch with a bowl of lamb chops fried in butter, you can practically hear the chorus of angels singing their symphony of hallelujas. It’s a beautiful sound. We stared at each other in incredulity and shock. Where had this man been all our lives? How was it possible we had gotten it so wrong? Because, as the theory goes, it is not, in fact, fat that makes us fat, it is carbs and the way our body converts them to sugar. It’s not the T-bone steak that’s the baddie, it’s the spud you eat with it; it’s not the brie cheese we need to get rid of, but the ciabatta it melts over. That old calorie-in, calorie-out thing we’d been honouring since time immemorial? Not so, friends. Not so at all. Because, contrary to age-old wisdom, all calories are not, in fact, created equal.

So, armed with this incredible, breakthrough advice, we all hastened to the nearest supermarket where, instead of our normal, sad selection of All Bran Flakes and fat-free cottage cheese, we joyfully filled our baskets with all the things we’d been denying ourselves – blocks of Irish butter (grass fed cattle, you see); full fat Greek yoghurt; salmon-flavoured cream cheese; thick, fatty hunks of meat. Oh, in the space of 45 minutes the world had become a marvelous place. And off we went to be happy and get skinny.

At first, it was quite mind-blowing eating all that stuff – Greek yoghurt tasted very, very creamy, and while fat is deliciousness itself, it’s still pretty fatty when you’ve spent the last twenty years of your life avoiding it like it’s poison. But, I soldiered on, adding butter to my already buttery scrambled egg, buying the streakiest streaky bacon and even making myself what was apparently the number one breakfast of choice, ‘bullet proof coffee’ (a mixture of melted butter – really – coconut oil and coffee). It tasted oily and odd, but hey, getting skinny can’t be all fun. And at least I was having pork rind for lunch.

Except I wasn’t really getting skinny like I expected. In fact, my skinny jeans were feeling rather tight around the thigh. But never mind, I told myself – it just hadn’t kicked in yet. Let me have a few more helpings of deep-fried chicken to get my weight loss on its way. Okay, not really, but the man said eat until you’re full, so I did. After three weeks, I noticed my face was looking rather moony so I thought it might be time to weigh myself – just to make sure it was actually working. Honestly, I wasn’t that surprised to learn I had not lost a jot but, in fact, gained a hefty 4kgs. Which was really rather a bummer because eating that way is fabulous.

So I gave the yoghurt and the cream cheese to my kids, sadly fished out my lycra pants and took myself off to the gym. I went back onto salad and being hungry until the weight slowly and painfully came off. And here’s the thing: I’m not saying this way of eating won’t work for everybody. I’m sure the diet worked brilliantly for the dude in question whose health improved radically and blood sugar went back to normal. But it didn’t work for me, and it didn’t work for a number of my friends who ended up fatter than they’d ever been. And mad as snakes as a result. And we all followed it exactly like he said.

Which leads me to believe that this one-size-fits-all solution to eating right isn’t all it’s cut out to be. I mean, for fifty years, after countless studies and huge amounts of money being spent on telling us how and what to eat, we were still taught that a diet of mostly carbs was the way to go. And now we have to shirk them entirely. How is that possible? How unreliable were the studies that were conducted? Or, was there something more sinister going on? I get that this diet about-turn is probably a move in the right direction, and we do eat too many refined carbohydrates and that probably is the reason why people are obese, but telling people to replace with carbs with limitless amounts of fat isn’t the answer either.

An announcement came out a few days ago that Sweden is the first country in the world which will officially be changing the old ‘healthy eating’ pyramid from high carbs to low carbs and high fat, and I’m not sure it’s the wisest move. By all means replace your morning muffin with a boiled egg, up the good oils and skip the French fries, but that’s not (ask me) how people tend to interpret eating plans. We’re silly and greedy and given half the chance we’ll start adding cream cheese to our tea. Fat people the world over are testimony to the fact that moderation is not our strongest point. We like to not exercise, and we like to eat a lot of tasty food.

I’m not a nutritionist, but I’m a lifelong dieter who’s read every book and study going and who’s been researching and writing articles on food and eating for fifteen years, and what I understand after trying countless fad diets in an attempt to fool my genes is that there are no shortcuts or tricks or schemes. Wanna be thin? Take in fewer calories and get into that spinning class. It’s immensely, mind-numbingly boring, but it’s the conclusion I’ve had no choice but to reach. And it just doesn’t make sense, this high fat thing. That old saying about when something seems too good to be true it more than likely is? It doesn’t sound right to me that eating a bunch of animal fat can be good for you. When, in evolutionary terms, did we ever eat that way? We know the cave dudes had a diet which consisted predominantly of lean protein and whatever greens and fruits they could scavenge.

So my question is this: if the researchers got it so wrong for so many years, how are we to know they’re not getting it just as wrong now? I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Eating some carbs and eating some fats, but being moderate with both. As Sweden has started what will no doubt be a world wide trend it will be interesting to see what happens to global obesity rates. I, for one, will be surprised if they improve.

Why I’ll Never Get On Another Scale Ever In My Life

My new happy weight - nought.
My new happy weight – nought.

So finally, at the age of 42, after being a slave to my scale for as long as I can remember, I have stopped weighing myself. It’s been about six months since last I voluntarily made myself feel crap first thing in the morning, post-wee, pre-coffee. And it’s not because at last I reached a level of self-acceptance and understanding that I am more than that what those numbers say, it’s because my scale takes those little round batteries like you used to get in Nintendo games and I have no idea where you buy them. And while at first the site of that blank screen filled me with panic (how would I know how fat I was? How would I measure yesterday’s level of gluttony or – less commonly – denial if I didn’t know my exact weight, down to the comma whatever?).

And then an interesting thing happened – nothing. At first it was weird not starting my day with the rush of oh-yay-I’m-down-300-grams-since-yesterday-I’m-not-gonna-touch-a-carb-all-day OR the crash of oh-fuck-why-did-I-have-those-three-glasses-of-wine-now-look-I-might-as-well-have-ciabatta. I missed the smug (albeit hollow, short-lived) feeling of victory when I had gone hungry and the scale was my best friend, but I didn’t miss the other feeling which happened rather more often – the dismay and the quiet self-loathing. Because it’s really quite difficult to feel okay about yourself as a woman if you’re not pretty thin. And somehow, achieving that goal can feel like the most important thing in the world. Which is seriously fucked up.

Three years ago, roughly (I remember this moment well) I got on the scale at midday (midday, nogal!) and it read 57kgs. That’s low for me as I’m not a naturally skinny person. The reason I weighed 57 (as opposed to 62, my body’s happy weight) was because I had recently moved countries with two small children, had no job or home, my husband was working overseas, I had chronic insomnia and our marriage was taking strain. I have never been so stressed and on edge in all of my life but, by god, I was thin! And that made up for all the other stuff. Needless to say, my delight was short-lived. We bought a house, I got a job, we settled in and found the love, and with happiness, (for me) comes food. We cook and we eat and drink wine and talk into the night because we’re friends and we’re alive and days are hard enough without living on grilled chicken.

I don’t weigh 57 anymore, and – barring a terminal illness or my head falling off – I never will again. I have no idea what I weigh, and I don’t really care. Okay, that’s not true. I do care, but not enough to make me go buy those batteries. My really skinny jeans are too tight on me, but luckily I have others. I exercise a few times a week without being mental about it, and instead of imposing crazy rules on myself, I try to listen to what my body is asking for. Sometimes it’s an enormous salad; other times it’s Kettle Fried chips. I have days when I eat too much and days when I eat just right. Sometimes I clutch at my muffin tops and hate the way I look naked; other times I think, hell, you’re not doing not too bad, lady. I think the biggest challenge we women face is being nice to ourselves. And without that mofo scale to torment me, I’m finding this a little bit easier.