Sunday, 29 November 2015

How do you tell your child that Dad has Cancer?

Cancer ceases to be an impersonal issue typified by a leaflet that drops through your letter box asking for donations or an ad on TV which distracts you because you think that these things will not happen to you. These things only happen to other people, you tell yourself. But, as I found out, it can happen to you, to anyone. 

There are so many ways in which a story of cancer can be told. There is the viewpoint of the sufferer himself/herself, the spouse's worry, the child/children, wider family members and friends. I have a daughter and her father was diagnosed with Cancer in May this year. This is the viewpoint that I have chosen - the heartbreak that was involved in having to tell my daughter that Dad had Cancer. It was one of the worst moments of my life so far. 

I have wanted to write about about this experience for 6 months in the hope that I could help someone going through the same experience or that someone who had been there before me could impart some wisdom. The session at Blogfest 15 titled - 'Giving it away: The public stories of our private lives' finally gave me the courage to do so. 

My daughter had just sat her first GCSE exam paper in early May. Our lives were galvanised around seeing her through a stressful time. Her father had been for what we thought was a routine check up two weeks before her first exam. I thought no more about it and, frankly, neither did he. Soon after he went for a follow up appointment and was told that he had Stage 2A Melanoma and that more tests would have to be done to discover how far the Cancer had spread.The world felt like it had caved in. 

I found out while I was at work and was about to attend a meeting with my boss. I had to duck out of that one to compose myself. I went out for a walk. Being in the midst of a busy world brought home the realisation that life, somehow, carries on. We had decided almost straight away not to tell our daughter till she had finished her exam, some 6 weeks away. This meant that I had to appear 'normal' at all times. I was to find out what that meant till the middle of June. 

Going home that evening from work was one of the hardest journeys that I had made knowing that I would have to interact with my daughter in a way that did not alert her. I managed it by the grace of God. 

When someone is diagnosed with Cancer one of the best ways of dealing with it is to share the burden. It was hard for me to call friends and family up for fear that my daughter would over hear me. I sent texts instead. They were all told to keep it a secret in the interim. We were overwhelmed with how every single person (about 25 people in total) agreed with our decision and declared support. 

The diagnosis, however, had battered my self-esteem. I was worried about telling people by texts. Just like it is bad grace to break up a relationship via text, I wondered about the efficacy of informing loved ones the same way of bad news. One close friend of 34 years did not respond immediately. At this stage I was worrying about the smallest things in an irrational manner. I sent this friend another text apologising for having had to have informed him in an impersonal manner. I have saved his reply. It simply said: "Jane, you can contact me on any subject at any time, that is what a friend is for."

There were so many times when I wanted to yell at the top of my voice, "your father has Cancer", and I almost did one Sunday when he cooked our daughter a roast and she took one bite and pushed the plate away. At this stage we didn't know how wide spread the Cancer was and were trying to stay positive while frequently giving in to bouts of pessimistic despair. 

I looked for advice on how the news should be broken to my daughter. I had to be careful not to leave a search history on the family computer. It felt like we were all in a speeding car heading for a crash. 

His exploratory operation was scheduled for the third week of the GCSE exams. Two days before the operation I had to present at a board meeting. I put on one of my favourite suits and on my way to work discovered that I had lost enough weight that the skirt was sliding down my waist. I had to sit down while giving my presentation for fear that the skirt would end up around my ankles. 

After the exploratory operation he was weak and ill and by some dint of luck our daughter did not seem him in this state because he was asleep when she came back from an exam and was out the next day before he woke up. I informed her school about the domestic 'chaos' in fear that she would find out and be unable to carry on with her exams. The school put a process in place to support her if that had transpired. Till this day she wonders how she never guessed at anything and is amazed that everyone else, the frequent visitors to our home and the pastoral officers at school asking after her well being, knew about it. 

During this time Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook wrote a letter about how she and her children were grieving over her husband's death. While her sorrow was a thousand times greater than mine, I read and re-read her letter many times to prise any pearl of wisdom to help me. 

When the letter from the hospital arrived giving the appointment date and time for the full results of his operation to be given we were appalled to discover that it was scheduled for the day after her last exam. After much soul searching and conversations with friends and family we decided that it was best to tell her straight after her exam had finished. There was no time for a gentle lead in. 

I lived in a state of dread all day on 18 June. To all outward purposes it felt like a normal day. At 10.30pm that night, after she had been out celebrating the end of the GCSEs with her friends, we sat her down and told her. Even writing about it now, almost 6 months later, makes me feel clammy. She cried and cried and went outside to call her best friend. I could hear her sobbing uncontrollably. 

The next day the three of us went to the hospital for the early morning appointment. Think of a day that is as furthest away from a Happy Christmas day and you will land on where our feelings were. He went in and came out an hour later. The Cancer had spread to his Lymph Nodes but the operation had been successful in removing it all. The diagnosis of Stage 2A was unchanged. Relief. Sheer relief. The dark fear that had gripped us for almost two months was gone in a second. 

He is still at a 5 year risk of it progressing and has quarterly check ups. For now the sea is calm. My daughter obtained 5A*s and 5As in her GCSE exams. Our strategy had worked. I am left with a lasting sense of respect and sympathy for those who have a Cancer diagnosis of a much later stage and for their children, spouses and family and friends who share the burden. 


Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Being a Feminist Mama - how did that happen?

Taking Feminism further through Feminist Mothering

This article was originally published by the Red Elephant Foundation which is an initiative that is built on the foundations of story-telling, civilian peacebuilding and activism for sensitisation on all drivers of peace - gender, race, nationality, colour and orientation. The initiative is titled "Red Elephant" to stand out as a vehicle that projects stories that must never be forgotten: stories that show you such courage that you should never forget, and stories that show the world such profound lessons that the world should never forget. In doing so, the initiative aims at creating awareness and opening up channels of communication towards creating societies of tolerance, peacebuilding and equality.

Being a Feminist Mama: How did that happen?
There is a photograph of my daughter when she was aged two, which I took and particularly cherish. She is looking into the camera and there is a touching transparency of total trust and belief in me as her mother. I can pinpoint that moment as being the pivotal one when I became a Feminist Mama. It dawned on me that I had to become an empowered mother if I was going to raise a daughter to realise her potential in a patriarchal society that still trips females up. Feminist Mamas challenge gender stereotyping in every facet of life thereby helping to create a society in which they and their children can thrive. My daughter started a political blog at the age of 10 and is the youngest political blogger in the UK which has attracted some attention. People are constantly amazed at a girl being involved in politics.

What does the term "Feminism" mean to you? One hears of so many different interpretations, and of the war of words that challenge each interpretation...

Feminist mothering does cause some controversy because it challenges the traditional picture of a mother who enjoys staying at home tending to everyone’s needs excepting her own. To me, Feminism is a multidisciplinary approach in pushing forward the female agenda for equality. Feminist Mothering takes the concept of Feminism further - mothers who wish to extend their feminism to child-rearing.  

Bringing up a daughter at any age is possibly not easy - back then, things happened covertly, and now, things still happen covertly - albeit with a little more dialogue and awareness. What do you see as the most significant issues in the process of bringing up your daughter?

Violence against women and the normalisation of the sexualisation of childhood are the two most worrying things for me. Betty Friedan, author of ‘The Feminist Mystique’ published in 1963, wrote about how clothing manufacturers were making adult style underwear for girls and how girls were not prioritising their education because their only expectation for themselves was to conform by getting married soon after leaving school. Have things moved on a lot since then? Yes and no, is my answer. It was not that long ago that girls’ were aspiring to be a footballer’s wife or girlfriend. ‘WAG’ (wives and girlfriends) was the acronym used in the Britain. Many young women are still conditioned by a desire to attract male attention and, more worryingly, feel validated by it. While there are no formal barriers to female education one wonders why more women are not going into politics or the science fields which are still seen as male arenas. I want my daughter to have a strong sense of worth and self-esteem that is shaped by her own actions and decisions and to gain a good education. It is the latter that allows women to have economic independence.

As a feminist, do you hope for your daughter to be one, too? What is your most important piece of advice to her?

My daughter who is now 16 spoke at an international Feminist Mothering hosted conference by the Motherhood Institute for Research and Community Involvement four years ago.  She said that Feminist Mothering had helped her “…reach her potential” and had given her confidence and a sense of security. She also spoke about the positive messages of gendered education (where the mother teachers her children to recognise and overcome boundaries that face girls). My most important advice to her is to always retain her religious Christian faith and Feminist values. The anti-religious feminist movement blames organised religions for the oppression of women and they are right in some ways. However, interpretations of religious texts are often constructed by the patriarchy and it is possible to practice a faith without compromising on one’s gender.

What does being a woman mean to you?
Feminist Mothering in the third wave has to be the most exciting period in feminist mothering history so far. When the feminist mothering scholar Adrienne Rich wrote her book ‘Of Woman Born’ in 1976 women were still trying to figure out ways to push back against the traditional construction of a mother. In fact, Adrienne Rich did not offer a solution in her book and many feminist scholars have since come up with answers. Also, the advancements in social policy, technology and the birth of protest movements have allowed me to develop a progressive maternal identity. I was involved with Occupy London which opened my eyes to the way the capitalist system affects mothers; being a blogger brings me into contact with the feminist online world; and enlightened social policy takes into account the many intersections and dimensions of womanhood e.g., mother, woman of colour, single, married.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

When women are stereotyped due to their job titles

This often happens. I meet someone new, as I did over the weekend at a Halloween Ball, and the question is inevitably asked within minutes of first introductions, "What do you do?". Your answer immediately sets in motion a process whereby you are judged, boxed and shoved into a pigeon hole where other job titles that have been stereotyped languish.

Your job title is enough to invoke sexism.

As an example, I am Private Secretary to the Chief Construction Adviser to the Government but nine times out of ten people assume that I am a secretary in the traditional sense of the word or a PA. My job is vastly different from this and entails ensuring that my boss is adequately prepared for all his public engagements and I often accompany him to meetings and have input at these meetings. Being female and having the word 'secretary' in my job title immediately renders me a victim of female stereotyping.

Don't get me wrong, I think being a secretary in the modern day of a digital office is bloody hard work and their multi-tasking skills are second to none. There is no 'but' to this either. What my gripe is about is the stereotyping of women due to their job titles or their place of work. The inherent misogyny in these assumptions are condescending.

Not all women who work in the medical profession are nurses, some are doctors. Not all women who work in the caring profession are carers, some are managers. Not all women who have 'secretary' in their job titles are secretaries or PAs. Sometimes the stereotyping is misplaced because there are men who are secretaries and carers. But, to prove my point, let's remember that Hilary Clinton was the 'First Secretary of State'. Then there are company secretaries who handle the governance structures of companies.

One's job title and choice of work place can be a minefield of misogyny and I am calling this out as a feminist mother. Do I want my daughter to grow up in such a world where her job choices are presupposed by the rules of misogyny? NO!

What I particularly detest is the look of 'I am having a fantasy right now' that passes over a man's face every so often when I trot out my job title. I feel sorry for nurses and secretaries whose jobs have been objectified by male lust. Whenever I see a nurses outfit for sale as a sex aid it makes me want to scream.

After having fought for equal rights in the work place and for equal pay it seems like the precursor to these feminist fights should have been over recognition of a woman's job title.