Flawed and frantic: REAL depictions of motherhood

When I was pregnant I really worried about what motherhood would be like, I think because most of my assumptions were based on advertising and fleeting depictions in shows like Neighbours. Mums moaned, worried, cleaned, fussed, dealt with stained football shirts, made gravy, responded to whining chimes of ‘MUUUUUM!’ and made urgent phone calls. It was nothing like what my own mum had been like, so doubly weird, but still, that was what I thought my future entailed and I knew I’d be bloody rubbish at all of it.

Instagram hadn’t kicked in when I was pregnant (thank GOD) so they remained my only references. I began to search for reality TV featuring new mums. 16 and Pregnant was a favourite, the episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians where Kourtney gives birth to Mason was safely stashed in my freeview recorder. I read and re-read Mel Giedroyc’s book, From Here To Maternity.

But I found nothing like what is on offer today. There is a brilliant antidote to this ‘post-truth’ era that’s given us filtered, edited perfection online, where bright, brave and honest women give us the real deal. For me, it started with Catastrophe – all hail Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney – which made me laugh and wince in equal measures. Then last week I saw Tully and then started The Let Down on Netflix, both of which are so bang on and so funny. Funny because they’re truthful and real. The unequivocal love mixed with the sleep deprived aches, the self doubt, the massive changes you field along the way…

It feels like every time someone depicts the messy, not-so-pretty sides of motherhood, we can all heave a collective sigh of relief – it’s not just us. In fact, sometimes it’s worse than what we’ve got going on. Sometimes it’s exactly the same and the empathy gives you licence to tell your own stories, or to encourage your partner to start to understand what’s going on with you. It’s like those women – Diablo Cody, Sharon Horgan, Alison Bell, Sarah Scheller – are reaching out their hands to high five you as you milk yourself over a toilet or sit on the floor outside your baby’s room not-nailing sleep training. I already feel about a million times more relaxed about how I roll nowadays. Plus, the thrillers we were watching before had started giving me heartburn.

I Feel Pretty

When I was growing up, my mum and dad never stopped telling me how amazing, clever, funny and beautiful I was. I know we’re cautioned not to tell our daughters they’re beautiful too often so that a huge weight isn’t placed on that one quality as they grow up, but it made me feel quite invincible, thrown in among the ‘you’re so clever’ and ‘you’re so funny’ compliments. At 11 I went to an all-girl’s high school and spent years happily uninterested in boys, my ego totally undamaged by them. I was silly, hard-working and my world revolved around my friends.

Then when we were about 14 or 15, we started getting invited to parties and I realised my time had come – I was going to unleash this witty, precocious (I felt sure that was a compliment at the time), charming almost-woman on boys and I was going to get to choose one for my first kiss. The first party, it didn’t happen. But I was sure it was probably just my debut – they’d have to pluck up the courage to approach me. Then it didn’t happen at the second party. By the third party, all my friends had kissed someone. I hadn’t been approached. At the fourth or fifth I was approached! But the tall 14 year old just wanted to ask for advice on how to nail my friend. When it started to get me down, another girl suggested my hair – which I’d put up in a series of complicated twists and spikes with about 73 kirby grips and some plastic butterflies – might intimidate boys? I thought about dumbing it down, about not letting my train tracks show when I smiled. But I got into bed with my mum when I got home and she let me cry and then told me again how wonderful I was. Still, I wavered.

For the next five years I continued to waver. These boys had the power to make me question everything. I couldn’t win them over with humour or with my grades. I mean, when you’re just trying to grind up on a girl, you don’t need their Barbra Streisand impression to get things going.

I didn’t feel pretty anymore, and that seemed very important, more important than any of the things I thought I was good at or what my friends saw in me. I knew how adults around me tried to get pretty – dye your hair, be skinny, wear makeup, shave stuff, suck stuff in… And a lot of my favourite films were involved makeovers – She’s All That, Clueless, Teen Witch, Grease – a quick eyebrow wax and a blowdry (or a perm…a perm!!) was all it took to make the protagonist desirable to the hottest guy at school. I wore Spanx, I stopped making jokes, I tried to grow my hair long, I tried living on Melba Toast for a bit, I did 100 sit-ups a night… Anyway, eventually, I came out the other side, and I hate that for a while, the opinions of boys – or, the opinions I assumed they had of me – counted more than what I thought of myself. But now have this incredible daughter I worry will be vulnerable to the same feelings. And so when I went to see I FEEL PRETTY I took a whole bunch of feelings with me.

It felt like the premise revolved around the idea that it’s so ridiculous that anyone would find this woman attractive, or think that she could fit into the army of model-like executives working at her dream office. It has echoes of the Shallow Hal joke that a man is going round worshipping an obese woman because he doesn’t realise she’s obese. OBVIOUSLY if he had realised, he would have been repulsed! HAHAHA! I watched that film and WAS repulsed actually, because once again we were being framed to laugh at someone who was just automatically considered an unrealistic love interest on account of her size. Even Jack Black’s eventual redemption didn’t do it for me.

*semi spoiler alert warning*

But I Feel Pretty is a little different. Because it’s really about a woman – played by the AMAZING Amy Schumer, whom I love very deeply – with low self esteem who finds an abundance of it (thanks to a head injury…hmm), and actually by being confident and loving herself, convinces even the twattiest people she encounters that she really IS awesome. She might not look like a supermodel but she loves herself. GOOD MESSAGE! Bad message? She’s conned into thinking that way by a head injury. But it’s a journey and she eventually realises she looked the same all along and it was her attitude that changed, and tells everyone to throw off the constraints of physical beauty and feel good, worthy and powerful for all our combined strengths and weaknesses – GOOD MESSAGE!

What made me uncomfortable was the sniggers – both on screen and from fellow viewers – whenever she said how fabulous she was. I wanted to punch those fuckers right in the smug faces. This is where I’m confused – is the joke on her if she’s making it? Is it on all women who aren’t in that narrow market or ‘perfection’? Are they laughing at all of us? I kept thinking of 15 year old me, strutting into a party in my blue sparkly lurex dress from Morgan, and feeling so angry and sad about the moment that confidence and self assurance was dismantled, because I didn’t fit. Plus, Amy is (I would say) shaped like the majority of women, and is an attractive person, so the characters in the film AND those assholes around me laughing their faces off were laughing at a non-supermodel woman loving herself, as if that’s absurd. But here’s why I think Amy and co. might have the last laugh…

Amy recently told Oprah about why she joked about ‘grey area rape’ in her stand-up routine. She lost her virginity to her boyfriend who penetrated her without consent while she slept and she made jokes about it, she says, so that any men in the audience would absorb that message – you have to get consent. It was a message to all men disguised as a joke so they wouldn’t shut down or ignore it. And while it’s NUTS that in 2018 we still have to dress up stark warnings like this, it made sense to me. And I think maybe that is what is happening with this film? Hollywood needs a romantic interest and a sexy job to shoot for to make sense of it all. Amy Schumer is a pull because she’s made some funny films already. So it’s like an easy, ‘safe’ entry point to the people with the shit attitude towards beauty, and then she hits them with it – it’s not ok to shame somebody for their shape, appearance or self confidence [you douchebag].

I don’t think you can go into this film thinking you’re going to get a classic Schumer comedy. Judd Apatow had nothing to do with this film. Amy didn’t write it, although she said she collaborated with the writers, and I feel like it would have been sharper if she had written it, maybe? But I hope all the assholes who body shame, slut shame and generally mess with our self esteem and create impossible ideals will feel uncomfortable like I did, and I hope they’ll get that not-so-subtle message into their heads. And as a mum? I hope that message spreads far and wide before my daughter starts feeling inhibited and self conscious.

NOW: Go and see it, I need to discuss with people who have seen it….

Depression Wears Lippy

L-R: Natasha Bailie, me, Jo Love, Dr Emma Hepburn

It’s been a brilliant Maternal Mental Health Week and there are some fantastic campaigns on social right now, hopefully giving mums a sense of a community that’s there to support them, as well as helping people better understand how women are suffering right now. This doesn’t have to mean PND – it’s all forms of mental health concerns, and hopefully about garnering better mental health in general, throughout all communities of mothers. I joined in with Amy Ransom’s ‘What I’d Give A New Mum’ campaign, and you can see so many more under the hashtag #maternalmentalhealth. 

A few weeks back, I joined a panel at Lobella Loves’ Depression Wears Lippy event, at Smashbox Studios in London. Organised by Jo Love – who started the campaign to dispel so many myths that depression has to look a certain way – we learned about her online shop, Lobella Loves, which contributes a portion of its income to charities supporting mothers with mental health issues, and about the events she organises to give women the opportunity to meet and find the support they need during maternity leave and beyond.

I was alongside my mate, Natasha Bailie, who has created Mental X Mutha and The Psychology Mum, clinical psychologist and mother, Dr Emma Hepburn. It was amazing to see women joining together in support of each other and we discussed our various experiences of having mental health issues as mothers in what felt like a very safe and supportive space. But the biggest takeaway for me (apart from the Lady Bakewell Park biscuits) was the tips Clinical Psychologist Dr Hepburn gave for helping a friend or loved one affected by depression or mental health issues, particularly a new mum. So I thought I’d share those tips here! 

  • VALIDATE how they are feeling- let them know its okay to feel that way. Be non- judgemental and don’t tell them how they should or shouldn’t be feeling.
  • EMPATHISE- you can say things like ‘that sounds really hard’.
  • LISTEN to what they are saying. Give them space to talk and time to respond rather than jumping in with responses.
  • NORMALISE mental health and how they are feeling. We all feel bad at times, its part of human experience and it’s okay to feel that way.
  • Stay calm if you can. It can be frustrating and difficult hearing things but if you demonstrate you are able to listen non-judgementally and contain their emotions this can increase their feelings of safety and they may be more able to open up.
  • Let them know you are able to hear what they are saying- psychologists talk about being able to hold and contain emotions and this is very powerful in itself.
  • Let them go at their own pace and speak about things they want to. Forcing them to speak or moving too fast is more likely to make them disengage.
  • If someone is not ready to talk, or doesn’t want to, let them know you are there for them, care about them, want to help and will be available when they are ready.
  • Don’t feel you have to jump in with solutions. Just being there and listening and caring is often enough.
  • Don’t tell them what they should be doing. But you can ask if they would like you to help work out ways to help or finding out what help is available.
  • Ask how you can help. They may be unsure. Rather than telling them what they can or should do offer two or three things you could do- e.g meet for a coffee? Text them twice a week? Bring them a meal round? Look after their children for an hour?
  • Don’t take what they say or their actions personally. Cancelling on you or not texting is not a slight to you, it is a reflection of how difficult they are feeling.
  • Don’t forget about them- even if they don’t contact you, send them a text or message. It can be as simple a saying “I’m thinking about you” or sending them a nice photo or memory of something you did together.

 

Photos by Nancy H Gibbs 

More resources from Dr Hepburn:

General advice (8 good tips) & how to talk to someone in a crisis

Some helpful specific phrases to use

Advice for talking about suicide concerns

Where are my inhibitions?

It blows my mind how quickly my inhibitions were annihilated and I became topless in public on a daily basis. I sometimes think it was because I was either around other mums, or strangers, which doesn’t bother me, weirdly, because I don’t have a relationship with those people and there’s no consequence of them seeing my tits.

At baby swim I was in the process of trying to one-handedly pull a jersey nursing bra – pre-stuffed with saturated breast pads – over my erupting mammory shelf, when the door to the changing room swung open and my naked ass, empty baby paunch and left breast was fully revealed as I spun in panic. And yet I was back again the next week, shrugging off what I knew should be embarrassing.

I used to be a very self conscious person, especially when it came to work. I worked at Vogue, for Christ’s sake, and couldn’t dress myself so was always wary of being looked at for too long. And yet, when I had my baby, I was even less conscious of not looking right. Maybe it’s because I looked so different and clearly had so little control over that fact that I couldn’t fight it anymore? Or maybe I was just really tired?

I vividly remember stepping back into that world for a minute when my baby was about 4 months old, journeying back to London to see some of the fancier folk. The idea was to let that world know I was still working, and was basically unchanged by motherhood (hahahahaha)

So I did this over tea in Harrods, where I flipped the buggy twice – once with my baby in it – my baby pissed through her nappy and all over me and screamed her head off for the first time. I realised after quite a long time that I hadn’t tucked my boob away post-feed, and it was gently dribbling milk onto the linen tablecloth.

As I left, I was attacked by a large Retriever – it reminded me of queuing up at a festival with a friend carrying in drugs up her arse, and I thought it was a sniffer dog, until I realised it was trying to get to the soggy breast pads in my smelly bra. I say bra, it was more of an elasticated sling at this point.

I also lost my sense of what’s appropriate conversation, which might explain how my book came to be, actually. I eventually got so used to talking about my baby’s bowel movements it seemed to naturally segue into my own announcements, like ‘I just need to go for a poo, actually.’ But to a colleague, much to her horror. I still quite often find myself wondering, ‘Did I just tell the woman at the bank that I had a chunk of my labia cut off?’ WHY? What happens?! Where’s that natural sense of shame that allows us to function in polite company and keep boundaries up? IT’S SO WEIRD. But it feels nice not to be so self-conscious.

 

Runway?! More MUMWAY! Mums as fashion’s muse?

(c) Grazia, styled by Gemma Hayward

I was flicking through Grazia this week and realised it had been ages since I properly pored over a fashion spread. I like shopping pages sometimes, but the actual fashion shoots – unfeasibly expensive clothes draped on quite uniquely shaped women – has sort of fallen off my radar a bit, despite having worked in that very realm for years, pre-baby.

And yet – HELLO GRAZIA!! As I feverishly flicked from one fashion-forward look to the next I realised since I last flicked, things have changed! HEY MAYBE DESIGNERS HAVE FINALLY OPENED ITS EYES TO THE CONSUMER! MAYBE WE’RE DONE WITH IMPRACTICALLY FLOATY DRESSES AND JUMPSUITS THAT GIVE YOU THRUSH, AND MAYBE WE’RE FINALLY GETTING REALISTIC! MAYBE THE MUM IS THE MUSE! Which makes sense if you think, all designers had a mum, presumably.

The spread included some potentially mum-friendly clothes. I’m not talking about the clothes you wear when the kids are out of reach or over the age of 4 and therefore fairly in control of their own bodily fluids and other substances in their possession (i.e., just people’s clothes) but mums on the frontline of puking, shitting, spilling, sweating, leaking, crying, drooling. The new season’s hottest trends included:

A PVC-style jacket – wipe-clean, water-resistant. Suggested parental stage: 0-36 months post-partum.

Top and trousers in a chains-and-belts Gucci-esque print, by Pinko – basically a walking Snakes-and-Ladders board to entertain your kids with, and you can play it lying very still. Wait until your kid is around two so they don’t gob on it.

Leggings with stirrups – no need to shave your ankles. Suitable for all ages and stages.

I want it all.

On a more serious note: seeing a woman of colour with natural curls in a spread like this = more significant, uplifting progress that really counts. Danyrose is EVERYTHING.