From the moment that little bundle of cells nestles into the lining of your womb, our society sees you as a baby-vessel first and a human being second. Think it’s over when you’ve got through the baby years? That’s just the beginning… Charlotte explains why your body isn’t your own when you’re a mum…
Almost five years ago today I was lurking, stock-still, in an unlit toilet cubicle in the now-bulldozed BBC Oxford Road building in Manchester. I listened hard until the sounds of hand-driers, footsteps and creaking hinges were no more. I breathed. I phoned my husband of three weeks.
Me: Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
Him: Congratulations. [Isn’t that a weird response? Definitely weirder than me being sweary.]
Me: You said you knew about cycles. You said this was practically impossible.
Him: Well I was trying to reassure you. I don’t know!
Me: You’re a pharmacist! You’re basically like a doctor!
Him: That’s why I don’t practise. I’m actually more of a chemical engineer these days.
I’d come back from honeymoon ready to embark on an intensive month producing my first documentary series for Radio Four. I was setting up a gruelling schedule of travel and early morning and late-night recordings. And then I started to feel sick… That night we went out to celebrate in a seafood restaurant. Seafood? What a pair of amateurs!
I’m remembering this day because, like all beginnings, it also marked an ending: it was the end of the era when I was free to do whatever I liked with my body. Of course, as a feminist, I believe that women should always be sovereign over their own bodies. But once you’re on that path to motherhood things get complicated.
No-one forces you to follow the pregnancy rules – although they’re getting close when they thrust a carbon monoxide detector in your mouth to “help you find out how smoking is affecting your baby”. (Wow! What a feat of creative phraseology! “We want to catch out the Bad Mothers who smoke AND lie about it. Come on team – who can re-work that to make it sound like a nice thing?”) But we all want to do our best for our children and, once the information is out there, it’s hard to ignore. What kind of she-devil would put her own selfish wish to lounge in a jacuzzi or to chomp on a bloody steak before the needs of her unborn child? The question hangs limply in the air as you go about your day: “Why would you take the risk?”
To be honest the pregnancy rules weren’t such a problem for me. I don’t smoke (although I was still genuinely anxious that the carbon monoxide test would show that I was suffering from severe cigarette-specific amnesia and was in fact on twenty-a-day). I can take pâté or leave it and the same goes for blue cheese. And the whole take care of yourself, get your man to sort out the cat litter tray, have three naps a day thing was right up my street!
But there’s enormous pressure on pregnant women and new mothers to ‘do the right thing’ and follow official guidance – often based on very marginal statistical evidence and sometimes at the expense of their own emotional and physical wellbeing. The ‘make the healthy choice’ type messages – which do of course contain some useful information – unfortunately have an unpleasant side-effect: guilt.
I’ve met plenty of women whose early months of motherhood were marred because they believed they’d failed their baby one way or another. It’s such a dangerous message to receive when we’re so vulnerable. What a child needs, more than pretty much anything else, is a mum or dad who’s coping, not in crisis. How about we slash the budget for healthy lifestyle campaigns and spend the money on more midwives and properly-trained breastfeeding counsellors who will come to your house on the day you call? If they must communicate with us through posters and slogans, they should just fill a wall of the GP’s surgery with the words: “Mums: you made a human being and now you’re keeping it alive. You are doing amazingly.”
Anyway, I’m past all that. Phew! My big girl’s at school; my little one’s catch phrase is “Do it on own!” and, for some unfathomable reason, the chemical engineer and I have sorted out some idiot-proof contraception – so we’re hoping this is it. And I’ve got my body back. Haven’t I?
Well, yes and no. Of course nothing in my life now compares to the way that being visibly pregnant stops your body from feeling like its yours. But the guilt – the feeling that I must weigh up my own bodily autonomy against how much I love my children – is here to stay. And I must admit that in this case I’m not really blaming anyone else. No matter how positive and non-judgemental the public discourse might be, there are some of us who will always go looking for information so that we can feed the guilt-monster.
I’m talking about healthy living, and the pressure to be fit and healthy mothers as examples to our kids. Here’s the problem:
- Only a fraction of teenage girls do enough physical activity each week.
- Experts agree that girls are much more likely to get into sport if their mums do it.
- I have daughters and I want them to be healthy.
- I don’t want to do the sport. I hate it! I hate it! I loathed PE at school. I don’t like being cold and getting rained on. I’m lucky if I get half an hour of me time a day and I’m buggered if I’m going to sacrifice that to doing something I don’t enjoy. The very thought of having to do exercise brings out the sullen, lying, scowling 15-year-old conscientious objector in me.
So harrumph! And surely everything I’ve been arguing should lead me to say: “Piss off! My body. My choice. Screw you all, sports-fascists – I’m off with a nice book to get crisp-crumbs in my bed!” Well… I could say that. I’d be quite within my rights to say that. I gave my daughters life; I don’t knock them around and I only occasionally snarl at them; I grate vegetables into their bolognese; I read to them; I’m emotionally present (if just a little addicted to my iPhone…) I know they’re doing alright. If I were giving advice to a friend in my position I’d tell her to just buy them some nice trainers and let Daddy take them out for a run. Hell, I could set an example by just putting on some unsightly sportswear, waving a cheery goodbye and then driving off to the pub. (That’s not such a bad idea, is it?)
But maybe this isn’t about what I can do for my daughters but what they can do for me. Because so far my girls just love being active. They’re like little jumping, jiggling, giggling, dancing baby kangaroos. And they’ve taught me that being physical – really inhabiting your body – is essentially pleasurable. It’s the starting point of being human. And if the impact of bad PE lessons at school is still affecting me nearly twenty years after I forged my last excuse note, it’s time I grew up. Not because I need to set a good example to the girls – I refuse to put on that extra badge of mummy-shaming – but because just maybe it would make me happier (and less stressed and less likely to die of heart disease and blah blah blah, I know, I’ve seen the posters…)
So, please dear readers, help me out here. I want to find an exercise that gives me a proper workout, but is fun too. Any ideas? I want to do something that feels more like playing than working. I don’t mind being a bit silly. And bonus points for anyone who can suggest a sporty activity I can actually do with my daughters – that way I could do it during mummy-time rather than me-time – a definite win-win.
These are my rules:
- No balls.
- No dancing or moves to music.
- Must be suitable for a cash-poor, time-poor, stumbling novice.
- If the sun’s not shining I will not be going outside.
Your best suggestion wins my Rosemary Conley’s Fat Attack Workout DVD – unused. And if anyone comes up with something a bit different that sounds like fun then maybe I’ll do it and then blog about it…