Keep Listening

I recently wrote an article about how difficult and frightening it can be as a parent of a child with a special need, when it comes to approaching your child’s teacher. I discussed the fears and the expectations we all try to balance daily, and the fierce ‘mama bear’ instinct that can be so hard to suppress when we are advocating for our children.

This instinct doesn’t only rear it’s head when we are facing a particularly difficult or frustrating situation, It is there all the time, and probably exists outside of the special needs world as well. It’s an overwhelming urge to do the most you can for your child; a surety that our children give so much just to get through what would be second nature to their peers, that they deserve to have equal opportunities, and sometimes perhaps more than the children around them. Like any parent, we want our kids to have everything. But they sometimes need that bit more help.

Once in a while, we meet a person or a teacher who goes above and beyond. Who waits outside the building to meet you in the morning, because the room looks different today and they know your son doesn’t like change. A friend who brings an extra copy of the story book to rhyme time so that your child doesn’t have to simply sit and listen to words which refer to pictures he can’t see. A teacher who takes the paperwork for his statement home to make sure all the t’s are crossed and i’s are dotted before an important deadline. Who never forgets to crouch down to his level to say good morning, so that he can see their facial expression clearly and know who is speaking to him. Someone in your life who phones you before booking their own child’s birthday party to see if it’s accessible for yours. A visual impairment specialist who somehow knows exactly how to bring your child out of themselves, help them learn confidence and social skills and pride in their own abilities. Who not only encourages your child to be the best they can, but encourages you to give them the freedom they need and simultaneously find confidence in your own parenting.

Those of you who follow my blog will know that my writing is broader than any specific person or place. I am overwhelmed by the response I have received for my special needs article, from parents in countries around the globe, whose children vary from toddlers to teens, all of whom have sadly experienced the emotions I wrote about. I am so glad that my words resonated with all of you, and I truly hope you’ll forgive my foray into the personal just this once, and that the following speaks to you too.

Because once in a while, as the parents of a special needs child, you have experiences that make you forget why it is ever difficult. This week, my 3 year old walked out of nursery with a ‘welcome to big school’ folder, with all the same photos and drawings as his peers. The only difference was that unbeknownst to me, his folder had been made 3 times the size of anyone else’s. My heart burst with joy as he easily showed me who he will be taking with to big school, and explained to me what every page in the folder meant. And the ‘mama bear’ inside me was proudly redundant.

This week, as my son says goodbye to his nursery, I am sad. He entered the building barely two years old, with no language, little confidence, and zero understanding of his own limitations. Among so many other incredible leaps, he can now clearly tell me when he cant see something, is strong enough to ask for help, and yet somehow still has no idea that there is anything in this world which he cannot do. I couldn’t possibly ask for more.

Being the parent of a child with additional needs is often hard, and there is no setting or person in the world who will know your son or daughter and what they need as well as you do. I can only hope I continue to find people in our life who go above and beyond to ensure he is always as happy and secure as I saw him this week.

Do as I say, not as I do?

I saw a post on a forum recently that made me think. The lady in question was asking for advice on making friends. She is a stay at home mum, and lonely. The friends she does make, she feels like it is only ever her who is making the effort, and they disappear if she stops doing so. She joked, in the way we all do when something is too painful to address head on- that when is she unwell or out of action, the only people to notice are her parents.

We tell our kids to be nice to everyone. We chastise them for leaving someone out in the playground or for excluding one of their peers from a birthday party list or a play date. And when they come home and say that little Jane Smith is not their friend, or remark that they don’t want to play with Billy Jenkins, we are full of ready encouragement to build bridges.

“I’m sure she is lovely when you get to know her”

“It’s not nice to call someone boring. Maybe they were just shy”

“Give him a chance, I’m sure you have lots in common.”

If our children become openly rude, or ignore us, we often resort to threats.

“If you aren’t nice to people, they won’t want to play with you.”

“Remember, you won’t get invited to Sally’s birthday if you don’t invite her to yours. And her mummy says she’s having a Frozen theme…”

But at what point do we change the rules? As adults we readily accept we can’t be friends with everyone. We hoard our free time zealously and portion it out to the creme de la creme of our social circle, the people who make us feel fabulous, who bring out the fun in our lives, the ones who really understand, those who are in sync with what makes us, us.

We might not be as blatant as the average four year old, but don’t we all have our ways of saying ‘you can’t play with us’?

It wasn’t a big deal, I just had a few people over.

Oh, I didn’t see you or of course I would have invited you to join us!

I didn’t know you would be interested in coming with, definitely next time, remind me.

Some of us are nicer than others. We make the small talk, we invite those along who would obviously feel left out or hurt. But at the end of the day, life is busy. We all have kids and jobs and homes and responsibilities, and our time is never our own. We all repeatedly choose one thing or person over another, even down to as simple a choice as whether to call back a friend, or use that precious time for 5 minutes peace and a cup of tea.

I don’t have a judgement to make. Although I have been a victim of it from time to time, generally I’m probably one of the worst culprits of this cliquey behaviour. I make snap judgements about people, I hate it when friends invite a third person along on an outing, regardless of how nice they might or might not be, I just don’t really want new people in my life most of the time. I have zero patience for those that for completely arbitrary reasons get on my nerves, and probably the worst of the list, I don’t dislike any of this about myself. I have no desire to be a nicer person or to be the one who goes out of their way to make the new girl feel welcome.

I just wonder what I will say when I have a 4 or a 5 year old. When R starts deciding he has an opinion on his birthday guest list. Can I in good conscience tell him he has to play nicely with everyone, when I don’t follow my own rules? And why bother anyway, when it’s only a matter of time before he learns the euphemistic language necessary to tell people to go away in a socially acceptable manner.

In fact, maybe I should just teach him that instead.

It’s almost worth it for the day I receive that call from his teacher.

“Mrs Sokolic, your son has told one of the other children that ‘Usually I’d be happy to include you, but we’ve had this game of hide and seek organised for a while now, and I wasn’t the one to set it up…. so….'”

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Start Listening

I have never felt so helpless in front of another human being.

I have been a child, strapped into a highchair or a car seat, wriggling for freedom to run and play. I have been a teenager, full of angry hormones, shouting and demanding independence and insisting I know best, met with inflexible rigidity. I have been a woman, crippled with labour pains, fighting against my own body for release and comfort. But standing in front of you, I have never felt so acutely another persons hands wrapped casually around my heart.

You are my sons teacher. But I am his mother. To you, that title may not mean much. Yes I gave birth to him, but I do not have any qualifications or certificates to prove my worth. I don’t have years of experience or references from children now grown. I don’t have a shiny laminated badge with my credentials, and I can’t issue you a formal letter with expectations or give you any funding or resources.

But that title. That word. Being a mother to that little boy means I know. I know the obstinate way he mutters under his breath crossly when he’s done something naughty, I know that as soon as we walk in a room he will be counting the lightbulbs, (including which ones are faulty.) I know from how far his head is tilted to the right how much difficulty he is having seeing something, and I know from the subtle head wobble when he is too tired to try. I know when his frustration at being left out or overwhelmed is causing naughty or difficult behaviour, and I know when it’s just a symptom of the dreaded threenage years like any other fully sighted child.

You are his teacher. But I am his advocate. I’m the only one he has. And it’s a ferocious balancing act throughout which I’m scared nearly all the time.

Scared to argue my case, because I know that we’re paired together my son and I. Who knows how I could unintentionally offend you and without any malice on your part, have it taken out on my helpless child? Frightened of not saying enough, and leaving him without the same opportunities that so many other children and parents take for granted. Practising with my husband in the morning before I approach you, trying to find that elusive tone of voice, or expression that will make my words appeal to you. Hoping that you will put aside the issues of resources and check-boxes, and just look at this mother who has no pride, and would crawl over hot coals if it meant that you would believe she isn’t hysterical, she isn’t trying to upset you or make your life harder, she’s just acting on the most basic instinct on the planet, that of a mother protecting her young.

I am one of thousands of mothers whose child needs that bit of extra help. We shouldn’t have to write letters or shout loudest or cry tears to be heard. We shouldn’t have to pick our battles and decide which parts of our children’s school life aren’t as important for them to access if it turns out that we can’t fight for them all. We certainly shouldn’t have to feel scared that we’re going to be ignored or condescended to or fobbed off with excuses when we summon up the strength to stand our ground against the system.

But in a world where these situations are often the sad reality, please acknowledge how it takes immeasurable courage for me to approach you. I am the advocate for my son. I’m the only one he has. For the time being, I am not only his eyes, but also his voice. And I’m asking you to stop simply hearing me, and start listening.

The Chocolate Wars

I have a pretty enviable three year old, who does what he is told. He looks for my hand as soon as we get near a road or into a car park, he isn’t a screamer or prone to tantrum, he always says thank you, and he never ever takes things without asking.

Well, he never used to,  anyway.

The last two weeks I have woken up in the morning to various ‘surprises’ in the kitchen. Empty wrappers, chocolate crumbs, empty spaces where expensive imported treats used to be.. All before 7am. After receiving various pieces of advice, I decided to chronicle the events, for other judgemental parents worldwide, and as a testament to the last few weeks of my life-if as I suspect, the stress of this early morning battle of wills actually forces me into an early grave.

Sunday May 11th
Hubby calls me into the kitchen, to be greeted by a virtual mountain of Reese’s cup wrappers. I count the damage, 9. I’m torn between shock that he would take them and eat them without asking, and hope that I don’t have to deal with projectile vomiting elsewhere in the house. I go find R, and after naughty corner, sternly tell him it is not acceptable behaviour, and there will be no treats for the rest of the day, and take away a stuffed toy. No tears from him, but those punishments are usually the end of it in our house, so I get on with the day.

Sunday May 18th
Had almost forgotten about last week’s ‘mishap.’ About 7.30am, I went to throw some rubbish in our kitchen bin, and was confronted by an empty bag of giant milky bar buttons. A bag I could have sworn had been half full. So unsure that it would have happened again, my first instinct was to ask the other man in our house. “Darling?” I called through the bathroom door. “Did you wake up in the night with the munchies, and finish off half a bag of giant milky bar buttons?” Surprisingly, my hubby was not the culprit.

This time I got really angry. Especially after asking R if he’s eaten anything from the kitchen and getting a negative response. Stealing, Lies, Deception tactics… was my son on the road to a juvenile detention centre?! Overreactions aside, (after three minute naughty corner for us to confab) this time we took away iPad, (more of a punishment for us frankly) and favoured toys for a week. Niggling thought in back of head that we needed a consistent punishment if this was going to become a habit. Also occurred to us that taking away treats doesn’t really work when the child in question has already had more chocolate that morning than you would ordinarily allow in a week.

Monday May 19th
“He’s done it again.”
No one wants to wake up to those words. Not for the second day in a row. I blearily went into the kitchen, to find a Musketeers Bar gnawed on on the floor. Should I be glad he at least didn’t try to hide it today? Unimpressed by the peanuts, he had bitten off all the surrounding chocolate, leaving a pile of shavings on the floor. I literally gave birth to a hamster. Sigh.
Again, he denied it, even when faced with the evidence. He started pulling funny faces, looking cross, and basically acting.. well.. three. Eventually I was rewarded with the indignant, “What?! I was so hungry!” which surprisingly didn’t make me feel any better, especially as he had been given a full cup of Cheerios about a half hour beforehand, still untouched in his bedroom. We decided on a consistent punishment, but I have a feeling it’s more about getting through to him.

I turned to social media, and as we all do, asked a question I already had my own opinion on, and waited for someone to agree with me. Should I move the choc to a cupboard out of his reach, or find a consistent punishment and stick with it? I had an overwhelming response towards option number one. Nearly everyone agreed that he was too little to deal with the temptation, and I was causing myself more hassle than necessary trying to get the message into his little boy head.

Of course, like the majority of us, I couldn’t care less what anyone else’s thoughts about my parenting are, and decided to ignore popular opinion and keep at the consequences approach. Short term pain, long term gain. As easy as it might be to just avoid the problem and move it all away, by persevering I would teach R that he can’t have whatever he wants without asking, that lying is wrong, that gluttony is wrong. It would be worth it in the long run when I had built up a three year old who asks permission, who knows that just because something is tempting, it doesn’t mean he gets to just take it. I would be raising a man who is loyal and honest and has patience, and is TRUSTWORTHY.  Either that, or just less calories for me to inhale in the mean time. Win Win.

Tuesday May 20th
Success! No chocolate eaten, one happy little boy reunited with the iPad and lots and lots of praise and play. Oh all of ye of little faith out there! I had an excellent talk with him, explained all the reasons why he can’t help himself, and here are the results. Smug mum alert. I knew I could get through to him.

Wednesday May 21st
Er… May have spoken too soon, if the remains of an ENTIRE EASTER EGG in the bin this morning are anything to go by….
Again, greeted by denial and angry face, and eventual insistence that he was “very very hungry” and then that I was “not at ALL splendid.” (Cue fist in mouth to muffle snort of laughter and maintain stern face.)

If this hadn’t already become a matter of principle, I think I may be ready to move to the ‘move it’ camp. But hey, who DOESN’T love banging their head against a brick wall eh?

We have now enlisted nursery to help, with his favourite Auntie coining the hashtag, “Big Boys Don’t Take Without Asking.” I love it; we’re printing t-shirts.

Not quite, but we have made a fetching sign together, and dare I say it… I *think* he gets the message this time.

Agree with me? Think I’m mad? Feel free to post below. I can only hope this is the end of the saga, but something makes me say “To be continued…”

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Disneyland Paris… through his eyes.

As many of you know, my son has a genetic eye condition known as Nystagmus. Those of you who have met him, will notice his involuntary eye movement, like a pendulum from side to side. You may know from me that he is partially sighted, as it would never be obvious to look at him, he is fiercely capable in almost every situation.

But when we booked to take him, age 3 and a half to EuroDisney in Paris, I can’t pretend I wasn’t nervous. The noise, the crowds, the simple newness of it all can be a recipe for disaster for even a fully sighted child, let alone one who struggles when we move his coat along a peg without sharing the info first. So when the Nystagmus Network, a fabulous charity working to provide support and information for us all, asked me to write a blog on what turned out to be an incredible trip for all of us, how could I refuse?

EuroDisney has an excellent accessibility policy which covers a wide number of disabilities, and the staff are happy to answer any questions you might have about the parks suitability. As a disclaimer, this blog can only comment on visual impairment, and even then only specifically on Nystagmus… And even then, really on my particular little boy. Hello? Any readers left? … Oh hi Husband.

The first thing you need to know before you book, is that you’ll need clear medical evidence of your child’s condition. We used his sight impairment card, and also took a couple of recent hospital reports which detailed Nystagmus and his difficulties with bright lights, crowds, loud noises, and the like. Truthfully they were happy with just the card, and seemed familiar with it too. Go straight to city hall, on the left once you enter the main Disneyland park, and present this evidence, and they will give you a green card, ticked with visual impairment on the back. On the front it will detail how many people the card admits to an attraction. There were three of us, and the card can admit up to six depending on the individual circumstances of the card holder. Note: this counts for all rides and attractions, but not for parades and shows. (See below.)

Once you have the card, you will not have to queue for any ride in either park. Just look for the disabled sign at each ride, (no mean feat for a sight impaired child and his sight impaired mother!) which is usually by the exit, and a staff member will be along to help you. You will need to show your card for each ride, so keep it handy, and try not to lose or destroy it. One extremely capable parent had somehow managed to have hers laminated, a feat which will keep me puzzling for years to come. Does she carry a pocket laminator around with her?

Nystagmus parents will know, that simply the passage of time itself, as well as any new environment is truly exhausting for our wobbly eyed little ones. Standing in queues, waiting in crowds, sometimes for up to an hour, all for a two minute flash of a ride, is either impossible, or not maintainable for longer than a ride at a time. The card meant that we could get on average three times as much done as those without it, meaning that although we would still need to take a long break for him to sleep or rest every two or three hours, it would be after 10 rides rather than 3. There was still waiting, for rides to begin and behind others with a disabled card, but it was usually in an emptier space, often with seating, and never for longer than five minutes at a time.

The other amazing plus was that we could get off and on the same ride sometimes 3 or more times in a row, using the first time round as a ‘getting used to the feelings/sounds’ and then subsequently pointing out what we thought he could see the next time(s) round. The staff were really helpful and lovely about this. Just remember to get off at the end of the ride, and ask the staff where the best place to wait to go on the ride again would be.

One further note on the rides, which we didn’t think of before we left. An unexpected discovery for us was how much our little man enjoyed the roller-coaster kind of rides. Where he was tall enough to go on, these were by far his favourite. Debriefing in the hotel, we think we can understand why. On those rides, it is a purely sensory experience where he can stop working hard to see and just let go and enjoy. Dark tunnels, light outside, fast movement in every direction, no one on the ride knows what’s coming next, and no one can see anything at all, in fact- there is nothing to see! If your LOs are of the brave variety, I would really recommend being courageous yourself and taking them on Thunder Mountain. I rarely see my son that freely enjoying himself, with no hard work on his part whatsoever. Just wait an hour or two after lunch.

A word on the shows and parades. Disney is known for its productions, and there are various shows running all day long. The staff will be as helpful as they can be, but the disabled areas are not close to the stage in all the theatres we tried, (being more set up for wheelchair access etc) and parents do not stop to look at your disability card before elbowing you out of the way with an Elsa wand so that they have the best view for their hyped up candy floss filled youngsters. Once people are seated, they will not move anyone to make space for a visually impaired child.

You may decide that all the shows are just therefore entirely unsuitable, and you will still have plenty to do at the parks. but where you can, present your green card, and bat your eyelashes, and ask at the door whether you can reserve a seat for a later showing,. This also has the benefit of being able to ask for something specific. (For example our son sees far better on the left than right.) Make sure they write the request down, as staff changes often on the admissions desks.

In terms of parades, it’s a little more complicated. The disabled areas give the best views, ensuring no one will be standing directly in your line of vision, but at the end of the day, it’s a parade! It’s fast moving, lots of colour, lots of music and no way to prepare for each new float ahead of time. The characters were brilliant, coming right up to the barriers to shake hands and wave at the kids in the disabled area, which made the parade worthwhile for us, even though I don’t think our LO got a great deal more than that out of it. Coupled with the fact that the card only admits one carer at a time with the child, meaning we had to separate, after that one try on the first day, we skipped the parades and used the time to get food and drinks where the queues were shortest. The night time Disney Dreams show in particular is late at night, full of loud noises, fast changing pictures, confusing colours and large crowds. Just to make things even easier, you can not stand anywhere remotely close due to the fireworks. Our son immediately asked us to “turn it off” and spent the remainder of the show in a frightened cuddle.

The Disney hotels, Cafe Mickey, and various ‘character meets’ around the parks meant that I personally didn’t feel like he was missing out by not seeing the parades, but it’s definitely something to bear in mind when planning your trip, especially with fully sighted siblings in tow.

I was incredibly impressed with both Disneyland Paris itself, and the accessibility policies they had in place. A number of decades ago, children like my son would not have been able to walk through the park gates without a meltdown of epic proportions. We would have managed maybe two rides a day, and certainly no shows or parades. The whole experience would have been miserable. We are extremely lucky to live in a time where disabilities of all kinds are recognised and worked around. and EuroDisney are certainly to be commended for their work to provide equal opportunities for all visitors.

As with any experience in life, there were elements of our stay which were out of our son’s reach, but these largely went unnoticed. Thanks to a little organisation on our part, and incredible effort and thought from the magic of Disney, the wobble in his eyes was far outweighed by the wonder.

Let’s Be Honest

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For a brief period during university, I had my only ‘student’ job, face to face fundraising on the streets of London, or as its more commonly (and delightfully) referred to as, charity mugging, or chugging.

It taught me a lot. About the business side of charity, about the psychology of working for a good cause, about the actual charities I was working to raise money for. But most it all, it taught me about lies.

Like many aspects of life, it is best summed up by quoting Chandler from Friends, this time as he explains to his wife: “It’s always better to lie, than to have the complicated discussion. … except with you!”

There is no doubt that lies are convenient. Need to get off the phone? Oh, my battery is dying. Need to get out of an awkward conversation? Hang on, I just remembered I have to meet someone. Forgot to reply? I never received your email.

In psychology, these kind of lies are referred to as ‘Butlers’. They stand between you and the person you are talking to, as a middle man, making the excuses for you,. Lies are essentially buffers so that you don’t have to hurt people’s feelings by telling the truth, which is more often than not simply, “I don’t want to talk to you.” And socially, there isn’t really anything wrong with that. If we went around telling everyone how boring their boyfriend drama was, or how little time we wanted to spend hearing about their kids new nursery…. We wouldn’t have many friends left to lie to.

But these white lies have become human nature. And what surprised me so much as a chugger, was how many times I was lied to daily, and for no social convention whatsoever. After all, I was never going to see these people again. I wasn’t a relative, a friend, or even an acquaintance. We share no mutual friends, I don’t know what area they live in or even their first names. We are as much strangers as you can be with another human (who you actually know exists) and we will probably spend no more than 3 or 4 seconds out of our lives in each other’s company. Additionally, I wasn’t asking them a personal question, or for their opinion on my choice of footwear or my haircut. No one needed to worry about offending me. Fundraisers are very clearly working, and while often need the sign ups quite desperately to hold onto their jobs, are rarely if ever personally offended by the 99% of people who keep on walking by. (To put this into perspective, if we achieved around 4 or 5 sign ups between 10am-6pm, the day was considered extremely successful.)

And yet without any understandable psychology behind it, 9/10 times people choose to lie. So let’s put aside all the BS for a minute and just be completely honest. I’m off duty, I’m out of the fundraising game, and to be really straight with you- I just don’t care. But whether you are reading this on a tablet or a phone, or on a computer or a laptop, at home or at work, here is a fact. The amount may vary from household to household, but we can all afford to donate per month to any given charity.

You just don’t want to.

We said it! It has been said. We’d rather have the beer with our mates, the coffee with a friend, the subscription to the magazine, the cleaner or the childcare or the wrap from the cafe across the street. In some rare cases, it may take more of a sacrifice, but we still choose to have the extra item on the grocery shop or the variation in our wardrobe choices.

And here’s the amazing thing, no one cares! No one minds. In fact, everyone agrees! We all make choices about our money and where we want it to go. These are all totally reasonable choices, necessities or extras alike. We all believe that we should treat ourselves, or our kids or friends, often before we look elsewhere. And every human on the planet weighs up whether something is a good enough cause to be worthy of our time and certainly of our money. After all, the greatest philanthropist in the world does not give arbitrarily to anyone who asks.

Everyone has their own personal soft spots, myself included. (I wouldn’t go giving me any kind of precious object to look after for example, without being aware I may well pawn it at some point to buy a homeless teenage boy a three course meal.) I am clearly not a cruel heartless person. But I will freely admit here in front of all my millions of avid readers, that I would rather go to Starbucks than save any kind of animal species on a monthly basis. If you stop me in the street and expect me to start welling up as you tell me about abandoned puppies, you have severely misjudged your audience. I am already planning on asking for extra hazelnut syrup.

And before I had worked in face to face fundraising, I probably would have done exactly what you do. Pick up an imaginary phone call, bark out that I’m late for a meeting, tell the fundraiser that I would stop and talk to them on my way back down the road. Or on the off chance that they got me in conversation for more than those few seconds, argue that I really couldn’t afford even £2 a week, which was such a shame as it sounded like an excellent cause. I would look it up on the internet when I got home, and discuss it with my other half. Did they have a brochure or a card?

Now, I save us both some time and say something revolutionary. “No thank you.” If I’ve started talking too early and don’t have to break my stride I may add, “I’d be wasting your time.”

It costs nothing, it doesn’t offend, and best of all-it’s the truth.

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Great Loss

72 years ago, a woman got married. She stood up in front of her family and her friends, and was sworn to a man for ever and ever. A ring, simple, plain, was placed on her finger. And she never took it off.

The marriage lasted less than a year. The woman became a mother, although the man left before he had the chance to be called father. This mother, raised her son by herself, and wore her ring to protect her from the cold stare of social stigma, and perhaps, in some small way to make her feel less alone when she remembered how she had lost the man she’d thought she’d have forever.

The child grew up, and grew used to the ring on his mothers finger. Perhaps took it as a small sign of her vulnerability in a world she faced alone. Bringing up a son was no easy job, especially without a partner to lean on.

Eventually, the child became a man, and got married too. He placed a ring on a lady’s finger, but was soon alone again. A second, a third time he tried to make those vows. But it was not to be, and he was soon alone again, this time forever. But he had not left before he had the chance to be called father. And his child, his daughter, they had each other. And he loved her more than he ever learned to love any other in the world.

The woman, now a Grandmother, looked on at her son, holding her granddaughter, and knew that the ring on her finger had not been for nothing, it had been for everything.

12 years later, the grandmother died, and the father, now as good as an orphan, only had his daughter in the world. He said goodbye to his mother, and took the ring off her finger, placing it onto his own. He wore it forever, perhaps as a way to feel less alone when he remembered the woman who had faced the worst of the world for him.

And the father and his daughter had each other. And the daughter, she grew used to the ring on her fathers finger, and took it as a sign of strength that he made his own way in the world without family to guide him. Bringing up a daughter was no easy job. Especially without a marriage to lean on.

Six short years later, the man was taken from this world, and was lost to his daughter forever. She said goodbye to her father, and took the ring off his finger, placing it onto her own. She wore the ring every day, perhaps as a way to remember the man who loved her most of all, to feel less alone when she couldn’t feel him watching over her or when she realised that she’d lost the man she thought she’d have forever.

And the daughter grew up, and on her own wedding day she threaded the ring onto a chain, and placed it as a necklace over her heart, and danced at her wedding with over 65 years of history, and failed marriages, and lost love around her neck. Once the day was over, the ring was moved from chain back to finger, and there it remained. She wore it every day, while she became a mother to a child whose father never strayed more than a few hours from home and his family, while she thanked God for her marriage and her family and her life, and most of all for the chance to wear that ring on behalf of both her father and grandmother, with true happiness rather than loss.

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I wish I could say the ring remained there forever, but tonight, I lost my grandmothers wedding ring. People who know me would tell you that I’m not very materialistic, and I don’t care much for sentimentality over objects. I own almost nothing of my late fathers, and I neither expect nor want my children to hoard my possessions zealously after I pass away.

But this ring.

This ring is my family history, and so much more besides.

The night I lost my grandmother, I cried like a child because I was a child. I hadn’t experienced the finality of death in any real way, and I couldn’t believe that she wasn’t going to be there the next morning.

The night I lost my father, I cried like a child because I was his child. I didn’t, and often still don’t know how to make my way in this world without his voice at the other end of the phone or his unwavering love to guide me.

Tonight, I am crying like a child for a third time. It’s illogical, and unresolvable, but without this object, this piece of metal, I feel like the child all over again. Lost without a talisman to protect me. Without the very last tangible link to my departed family, I feel alone.

Where has Carrie Bradshaw gone?

Most people like to think of this as a generation of sexual liberation. We have greater freedom to express ourselves, better laws to protect ourselves, and with the Internet-a wider forum than ever to indulge in whichever proclivities take our fancy.

But there is something strange about the way us 21st century women, us beacons of a sexually emancipated generation, read and view the act itself.

We are in a time of gay marriage, of open relationships, of fetish wear for sale right next to the frilly nighties. No one can deny how far we have come. So WHY am I surrounded by so many sexual myths in popular culture and opinion?

Like so many other issues, I believe the media has a lot to answer for, and that we haven’t really taken any steps forward in well over a decade when it comes to imitating life through the art of television, film or books.

I remember being 15 years old, given free rein for the first time on the wide world of the web, streaming episodes of Sex and the City, with one finger poised over the minimise button and one eye on the door in case my mum walked in. While the show has become less of a ‘guilty’ pleasure, it still holds a massive fan base, myself included. And I would argue that entertainment today cannot hold a candle to its honesty and realism when it comes to relationships and sex.

You’re crazy! (I hear you shout.) What about Girls? What about the 50 Shades phenomenon?

Yawn.

Is this really the next level for us in sexual expression? Shock? While SATC might not have got as far with BDSM as a descriptive spanking scene or images of nipple clamps, and while Girls may arguably present a more realistic version of financial life in our twenties, there is absolutely nothing remotely modern or real in their presentation of relationships.

There is no doubt that we’ve made leaps and bounds in the “how far can they go” factor. If you want someone to congratulate, find whoever is responsible for ratings and censorship, because they have had a hell of a time since the new millennium. It would seem nothing is too shocking, nothing is too sacred to plaster across screens and pages with abandon when the last ‘hardcore’ topic of conversation becomes old news, as everything eventually will.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, if it’s your cup of tea. Sex, as in the act itself has never been more revealed. But don’t mistake that for something entirely different. Because sex, as in the relationship gender battle? I believe it’s as hidden in entertainment as it was before the likes of Carrie Bradshaw ever hit our screens, erasing all the hard work those writers ever did.

I’m not talking about the extremes of Samantha and Charlotte, looking for complete opposites in the dating pool and there to surprise and reassure us respectively, giving us their own version of that “shock factor”. I mean the typical Carrie that is inside all of us while we are dating, or in any long term relationship for that matter. Not sure whether we’re searching for Mr Right or Mr Right Now, The One or the One that suits my current situation. Wondering how or if to fix challenges between partners, and how much to share of ourselves. Carrie’s relationships pushed the boundaries and honesty of sexuality and notably gender further than anything else has since.

It could be dispelling the myth that sex doesn’t get better, with Carrie and Burger’s self professed “quiet” first time leading to a meaningful relationship (pre post it of course), or the propaganda slaying of the opposing dragon, that your partner needs to be ‘the one’ to enjoy a physical relationship, her brief fling with the jazz man giving her the ‘most intense orgasm’ of her life. Either way, where modern culture may have screamed ‘sexually incompatible’ at Carrie and Burger, or placed a ‘happily ever after’ neon sign directly above the happily uncommitted latter duet, Carrie did nothing of the sort. She persevered with Burger, accepting that mood, nerves, lighting, and just simply getting to know one another better, all factor more than the world would let you believe, and after happily finding herself ‘life incompatible’ with physically compatible guy, bravely discarded him to the bonfire of relationships past.

She lived her life. And the men did too. Was Big always there in the background? Yes he was. And that’s okay too. Because her life wasn’t portrayed as a mess without him, or more importantly still- not a mess with him. Her choice (and his too) at the end of the day was to be together, whereas for Samantha her equally legitimate choice was staying single. For Charlotte and Miranda it was marriage and kids, all portrayed as decisions with pros and cons and strings attached, and not a happily ever after in sight. Just life, with all it’s ups and downs, regardless of gender or choice.

Entertainment is there for just that, to entertain you. It’s okay to get swept away in the story, romance or drama included, the same way as you might enjoy fantasy without looking for a vampire at every turn. But can you separate the fantasy of the supernatural in Twilight from the equally farcical nature of Bella leaning on a man at every turn to save her? Find Christian Grey sexy without craving Ana’s virginal experience?

I hope so. Because it doesn’t look like anyone’s creating any alternatives for us any time soon.

Do you need to see my tax return?

Advice please faceless crowd of the Internet. I’ve offended someone, and although I’m certainly not to blame, I’d love to try and help her if I can. My friend has approached me, armed verbatim with various comments I’ve made recently, and she’s hurt and annoyed.

As long as I’ve known her, she’s wanted to be a career woman. She worked hard in high school, studied the relevant subjects, got into a great university, got a fantastic degree, completed various summer work experiences, and obtained the certificates necessary to practise her vocation. Then began the hunt for a job.

She called me one night a few months ago, excited. She had just heard about an interview opportunity in her field. “I’m sending off the application now” she bubbled. “Hmm” I replied. “How much does that pay?” In hindsight, she deflated, and mumbled a reply. I wished her good luck, although apparently by focusing on the money I wasn’t being supportive.

Another time, she told me about some temping she was doing, picking up the odd shift here and there, honing her skills, working from home, making contacts. I was baffled. “But what are you DOING all day?” I asked genuinely. I mean come on, how can it be a REAL job if it isn’t 9-5 in an office right? That one wasn’t my fault. She’s just being over sensitive.

I didn’t see her for a while after that, and then our paths crossed at a social function. After catching her up with my life, the drudgery of finding childcare and commuting and never seeing my spouse, I asked her how her work was going? Had she found a job yet? She seemed nervous to talk about it, but told me she had a few different part time jobs going on, working for various different employers, bit of this bit of that. She told me it gave her the chance to see her kids, be home for her spouse in the evenings, make time for friends and hobbies, and that she’d never been happier.
Not wanting her to feel bad about her clearly flailing employment status, I smiled. “As long as you’re keeping yourself busy eh?” I sympathised, hoping for her sake that one of her ‘part time’ dabblings would become something concrete at last.

Later that week, I saw an admin job advertised online, and kindly sent her the link. Full time, in a proper office, with proper holiday days and benefits. Minimum wage, but beggars can’t be choosers eh? I thought she would be delighted to have someone in her corner, showing her what she was capable of if she just took the plunge into the real working world.

Now she’s sent me this email, telling me I’ve been condescending, patronising, unsupportive, rude even! But how can she call herself a professional? She never knows how much work she will have from one month to the next, she never knows how much she will be paid, she doesn’t even have real colleagues, or a desk to call her own. Sometimes she’s clearly so unfulfilled that she even works for free. But not ‘real volunteering’ for a charity or something worthwhile. She just obviously isn’t good enough at her job yet to deserve being paid.

I feel terrible for her. I’m trying not to take her harsh words to heart, as I’m sure it mainly comes from jealousy, and maybe some embarrassment that I’ve seen through the brave face she puts on when we meet.

A tragic story, I’m sure you’ll agree. And entirely not my fault.

Any leads for her gratefully received, so she can finally give up this “writing thing,” and get a real job.

“What’s worse than a Male Chauvinist Pig?”

” …A woman that won’t do what she’s told.” 

That’s an actual joke someone told me, before laughing raucously, in answer to my question “Would you call yourself a feminist?”

Until recently, I’ve never thought much of feminism. Not in a disparaging way, I mean it literally hasn’t crossed my mind that much. I suppose I’ve never noticed that much sexism taking place around me. I like to think that if I had been alive a hundred years ago, I would have been one of the women throwing myself under horses for the rights of women, but in all honesty I’d probably have been obliviously popping out babies chained to the kitchen sink like the majority of that generation.

We can vote, we can work, we have birth control at our fingertips, we can be presidents and prime ministers. (ettes?!) We pretty much have it all. Truthfully, I’ve always sighed at women’s lib organisations like Femen, and asked, what more do we want?

After all, Feminism in its original meaning doesn’t exist any more, does it? We’re not campaigning to be allowed a say in politics, or for control over our own bodies. In the western world at least, life is pretty good for women. We can have our babies and return to work. We can choose not to, and that’s fine too. We can have sex, and we can even enjoy it. Of course there is working woman’s guilt, mummy guilt, stay at home guilt, basically vagina guilt, but if we were really honest we would accept that it’s mainly self judgement, and that the rest of the world doesn’t care. Real issues still exist, the gender pay gap being a massive one, but for the most part we are doing pretty well for a gender who couldn’t even go to university when our grandparents were kids.

So if I’m happy enough to let other women deal with what’s left of inequality in the western world nowadays, what’s brought feminism to my attention lately?

Caitlin Moran (in her fabulous biography how to be a woman which you must all go out and read) discusses the kind of sexism that you don’t notice right away. You might leave a situation thinking, wow-they were a massive douche, and then it actually takes another few hours to sit bolt upright and realise that you missed the word sexist out of that description.

And since that written revelation, I’ve been absolutely bombarded by my own memory, to the point where I can’t believe quite how rife my life has been with hidden sexism. And that’s what I believe we should be fighting against.

Last month, I had the displeasure of spending a few hours in enforced company with an extreme male chauvinist. The kind you can’t help but notice. He had a mini fit when his son picked up a pink buggy to play with, complete with a baby doll inside. “Sorry” I just barely bit back from saying, “I didn’t realise you want your son to grow into the type of man who won’t care for his children or help his wife.” Later that afternoon, midway through an intellectual discussion between him and two other men, I joined the debate. After his look of shock dissipated, he continued talking, making sure to explain every word over two syllables with a condescending look in my direction and an apologetic head tilt for his superior knowledge. When I correctly answered the problem he had posed, he shook his head and basically told me I’d made a lucky guess.

I went home livid. How has he got to mid thirties without someone telling him he has a huge problem? And how can his wife let him behave that way without saying something?

Attitude. That’s what the war should be waged on. The next time someone is rude to you, stop and check the conversation. Is it rudeness, or sexism? More and more I can see that what at first glance was brushed off as ‘they’re an idiot” has a horrible undercurrent of latent sexism that maybe even the speaker isn’t aware of. Sentences like “what does your husband do?” before you’ve even asked about my own work, are not just rude, they are horribly sexist. And they paint a reality. A reality where the female intern gets the coffee while the male one assists the director of the company. A world where you plan an important speech for a meeting and two men stand up to leave before you’ve finished the first sentence. A world where it’s assumed you wont want to join everyone for lunch, so you’re left alone to answer the phones.

All of the above have happened to me in the last five years, and honestly, none of them are serious enough as stand alone events to even mention, without dealing with another sexist label, “the hormonal hysterical woman.” But put them all together and you have a quite frightening picture of a woman’s worth.

It’s easy enough to solve. And bear with me here because this is quite radical. Everyone has to see women…. as people.

That’s right. The same as any other person, male or otherwise.

It’s crazy! It’s insane! It will never work!

But taking every situation I’ve outlined above, I think it may be genius. Instead of my new favourite MCP noting that a dress and heels had joined the convo, if he had just noted that another human was now involved, the only change in conversation would have been a slight body shift to include me in the debate.

If I wasn’t immediately wife, but rather person, then obviously the first question would have been “what do you do?”

“2 interns? Flip a coin, decide between yourselves, take turns for gods sake.”

“Oh, a person is talking, I’d better wait to go powder my nose until they are finished. Perhaps I’ll even listen.”

“Ah, we’re going for lunch, every person is obviously welcome.”

I’m not for one minute downplaying the important work that feminists do for women, and I’m grateful every day for our ‘sister suffragettes’ that made my own freedom and choices possible. But the work needed nowadays is different, and I believe it is mostly down to menfolk to make the changes, although of course women can be just as guilty. To see women simply as other people who coexist side by side, separate but equal. To extend the same courtesy they would to any other person, by simply not being rude. To think about an unpleasant encounter in their day and ask themselves whether they would have made the same choices had a man been standing in front of them, or at the other end of the line.

So do me a favour, and pass on the message to the man in your life. After all, they probably will have stopped reading this by now. It’s written by a woman. 

sexism