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.

On Not Getting the Memo

My cute new diary - see, I'm not making this stuff up.
My cute new diary – see, I’m not making this stuff up (I can’t make it be upright).

So, I’ve reached a very troubling realisation in the first week of the new school term, and I plan to take it up with the relevant authorities immediately and right away. What I have realised is this: it is not because I am trying to get past level 13 on Candy Crush (I will get those fucking cherries to the bottom, fuck them) or spending several hours finding the most flattering filter for my new fabulous-on-holiday profile pic (Amaro wins again) that I’m the only Grade One mom in the universe who didn’t get the memo about going to the school the day before to hang a small, fabric bag on the back of my child’s chair and making sure it contains the relevant (marked) stationary. No. It is because there is a conspiracy going on between the teachers and the parents to not give me any info, ever, and it’s really rude to say the least because I’m deurmekaar and stressed out at the best of times.

But I’m onto them now. While it might look like the other parents are just giving each other happy-new-year-how-was-Plett hugs, I know what’s actually going on – they’re like ants. You know how ants put their heads together for a millisecond and then go their separate ways and it looks like they just didn’t see the other one coming but actually they’re exchanging Very Important Information? This is what these wily parents are doing. They’re telling each other things about tackie bags and meetings in code, like aliens, leaving me to be the only doos who doesn’t show up and whose child (in accordance with the new School Tackie Law) isn’t allowed on the jungle gym at break because she doesn’t have the requisite footwear. It’s just not cool, man, being secretive alien ants and leaving me out of the loop. This shit’s got to stop.

But seriously, I’m aiming to be better at knowing what’s going on this year, and to that end I went to CNA yesterday and bought a diary with real pages and a bunch of pens too because I’m over signing homework with a blunt purple crayon which is regularly the only writing instrument this writer can find in her house. And yesterday I sat down with one of those pens and wrote down all the important things I could think of, like my children’s birthdays, and that made me feel reassured because the calendar thing on my iPhone actually just doesn’t work for me. Why must I tell it to alert me? Surely the fact that I’m punching in dates in the first place is testimony to the fact that I won’t remember to remind my phone to alert me? Fuck’s sake. Hence, too many missed things in 2013 than I care to think about.

But, thanks to my nice new diary, this will be the year that I don’t RSVP to parties only to be accosted very early on a Monday morning by an indignant 6-year-old wanting to know why we didn’t show up. This will be the year of not driving hell for leather to the Spar at 7:52am to buy stale cupcakes in primary colours for the 10am cake sale. No – this year I will be like those other, together moms who get up 20 minutes earlier and put Pick n Pay cheese puffs in the oven, and I’m going to serve them on a tray with little bits of shredded lettuce and everything, just watch me. I’m going to show up at meetings on time, and not – like last year – just as all the other parents are filing out of the hall clutching 17 pieces of paper that contain top secret school information which I’ll never be privy to and they’ll take with them to the grave. And I will definitely not forget to fetch my child from aftercare because I had meningitis from drinking Sauvignon Blanc the night before and needed to take a small nap.

2014 is going to herald a whole new me, and I’m excited about these changes. I will be on top of things. I will be that mother other mothers phone when they’re not sure what time ballet is. The one they look towards for guidance when Waltons didn’t deliver the retractable crayons and they’re confused about swimming cap policy. With my diary and a pen in my handbag, I’m appointing myself the new go-to parent, and I’m seriously going to rock. You’ll see. Happy new year, everyone :-)

On Raising Girls in a Crazy-ass World

I mean. Really.
I mean… really.

Probably my third thought after finding out my first baby was going to be girl (after oh wow, I really am pregnant and hooray! Now I get to use my favourite name!) was about how I was going to protect her from the world we live in – one that doesn’t allow women to be educated; which stones victims of rape; which marries off 10-year-old girls to 50-year-old men. How on earth was I going to raise her to be healthy and grounded amidst all this madness?

And no, I don’t live in Iran or Turkey, but I do live in a place when 9-year-old girls go on diet and want to marry a rich man and look like Miley Cyrus. And it’s kind of degrees of the same thing. So, I had all these plans in my head – I wouldn’t allow her to dress like a princess or watch American teen sitcoms. I would tell her she was clever instead of beautiful, and I would lead by example by having a career, being with a guy who respects me and regularly asking her questions which would keep her critical of the world we live in.

In reality, I managed three out of six. When I saw what her face did when she came across the Cinderella dress at a toy shop in Malmö at the age of two, no amount of stoning could have stopped me spending my last cash on that mad, pink concoction of tulle and bling. And when she wore it, all the time, over pyjamas at night, to school in the morning, her happy little face wasn’t clever, it was beautiful. And I told her so, repeatedly. How can you not?

Now I have two girls, and I don’t let them watch American teen sitcoms and they understand why, and even though I know they watch them at Granny, the important thing is that they know how I feel about it. We talk a lot about the world we live in, and when Sophie says stuff like, ‘boys are better at maths than girls’, we have discussions around how and why and she figures out sooner or later that that’s just a load of hogwash.

But, they are both girly-girls, as am I, and I’ve realized I have to step back and let them be who they are. Because, as any mother will know, your kids are individuals from the moment they are born. You guide and help and facilitate, but if you’re a sorted, clued-up kind of parent, what you’re really doing is giving them the confidence to be who they’ve always been.

My daughters love clothes and accessories and and dressing up. They’re also clever and creative and avid readers and storytellers, and the two kind of feed into each other. And I don’t think their penchant for pink and sequins is going to adversely affect their lives. God knows, a sparkly top doesn’t shut me up for a second. I know they watch me closely, so I’m super mindful of the things I say and do that will impact the way they understand their role as women. I make sure I have days in the week where I deliberately throw on whatever and don’t wear makeup or jewellery or even look in a mirror. So that they understand that this is an okay option, too.

The world has changed and continues to change, even with the inevitable backlash from certain sectors of the populace. I think, for them – especially if they go to university in Scandinavia – the playing-fields will be more level than they were for me, just a few years ago. And where they aren’t my hope is that their self-confidence will be developed enough to see them through, at least most of the time.

We watched this video together yesterday. No matter how many times I see it, it always makes me cry. And what’s more, they totally got it. More than this I can’t really do.

Maybe men aren’t as shit as we think. Just a thought.

So, this morning I woke up to a long, considered letter from a guy I went to school with accusing me (albeit in gentler terms) of male bashing, and challenging me to come up with something positive about men for a change. Which led to a rather painful, pre-coffee discussion with my husband about whether I could, in fact, come up with 10 nice things to say about the other gender (he assured me I couldn’t). Writing this without a hefty dose of generalization is going to be impossible, so bear with me. Let’s see if I can do this. Here are 10 awesome things about men:

1. Men don’t hold grudges
While we women will sulk till the cows come home, guys will have it out with each other and move on. Which saves a lot of time and unnecessary bad blood.

2. Men are long-suffering
While women will nitpick, whine and find fault with the smallest details of their lives, men will just get on with things – all the while working really hard to make sure we have nice stuff.

3. Men are generous to a fault
Someone will do something pretty crap to my husband and he’ll usually shrug it off as them having a bad day and not think about it again. Should the same thing happen to me, I’d probably plot their painful demise. Gotta hand that to him.

4. Men try hard to please us
They really do. I don’t see a lot of that coming from women, on the other hand. We force our men to be different – to open up, talk about their emotions and be sensitive to our feelings. But we’re not really prepared to change in the same way because we believe we’re always right. So, often the compromising is a little one-sided. In my experience, anyway.

5. Modern men are amazing fathers despite having had no blueprint for fathering
I have male friends whose fathering makes me look like Anna Wintour. They’re patient, hands-on, attentive and engaged, and somehow they figure out how to be these things without having had any proper fathering of their own. It impresses and humbles me to the nth degree.

6. The men I know are great feminists
Despite the fact that a mere 50 years ago women were being ordered to put a ribbon in their hair and have a good dinner ready when their husbands came home from work, I’ve only been involved with men who are encouraging and endlessly supportive of the women in their lives.

7. Men don’t care when we gain weight
They don’t. It’s us putting the pressure on ourselves.

8. Men are easy to please
You’ve heard the jokes about beer and blowjobs. It’s not quite as simple as that, but almost.

9. Men aren’t conniving
They’re more inclined than women are to tell it like it is, which means there’s less second-
guessing and game-playing involved. Usually you know where you stand.

10. Men will write letters to women complaining that they’re being misrepresented
Which means that they care what we think and that they want things to be different. And they’re getting different, it just takes time.

SO THERE.