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My daughter and her all-female class made their First Communions recently. The massed ranks in the church were quite a sight to see. Immaculately coiffed hairdos, amazingly stylish frocks, even a few fake tans.

Yes, the mothers looked stunning. Of course all the little Communicants were beautiful, and they could never be overshadowed by their Mums on their special day. But it has to be said, it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Once I had my gúna purchased, I had thought my own preparations were more or less complete. But in the weeks leading up to the big day, sartorial and cosmetic arrangements were the talk of the playground. Who was wearing what, were the blowdry appointments booked, would the few pounds be shed and had the right shoes and jacket been located?

In spite of myself, I gradually found myself being swept along by all this.

A life-long hater of fake tan, I cautiously purchased a bottle of moisturiser which promised a hint of built-in tint. I slapped it on for a few days and fretted about smelling like a biscuit or ending up with orange palms and elbows. As it turned out, I’d been too cautious; the light shade I had chosen made no discernible difference to my skin colour. I did emit a slight biscuitty fragrance though.

I also bought slightly higher-than-normal-for-me shoes (with wedge heel to enable me to walk) even though I’m not that fussed about shoes. I had the eyebrows threaded. I booked a professional blowdry for my very easy to maintain hair.

I realised I was losing it when, seized by a last-minute anxiety about being out-glammed in the church, I began desperately experimenting with different make-up the day before the Communion. Confronted by the slightly scary results in the bathroom mirror, I told myself to get a grip. After all, it wasn’t about me.

Well, we all love dressing up, don't we?

The maternal glamour quotient was extremely high the next morning –  noticeably higher than at my son’s Communion four years ago – and I was glad I’d made the extra effort. Though I did wonder who we were all trying to impress. Each other? The viewers of the family photos in years to come? Was it significant that it was our daughters making their Communions – were we subconsciously trying to compete with them? Surely not.

Of course, on the day our daughters were the stars of the show. Every parent’s heart was full of pride as the girls sang their well rehearsed hymns, brought up gifts and did readings. Whatever your feelings about the First Communion ritual (and stepping back from it a little, the white dresses and the cash gifts are a bit odd really) it was difficult not to be moved by the innocent seriousness with which they took it all.

A wonderful day – and the photos turned out well. Phew.

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I started writing a comment on the highly thought-provoking guest post by Anna-Lena Dubé Fuller, ‘Women in the Media – Not’ and Motherhood v Careers, but it began to balloon, veer, swoop, and all sorts of other alarming things, so I decided to make it a post all of its own.

The discussion in the comments on Anna-Lena’s post is riveting and wide-ranging, as debates about parenthood and paid work tend to be. To tell the truth, I have a habit of shying away from such debates, because the emotions they evoke in me are fairly raw.

The Job of Being a Parent But what the hell, she said defiantly!

Here’s my experience:

I have a permanent, public-sector job, from which I’m currently on my second career break. I’ve done the work/parenting balance various ways since my two children arrived. At first, I went back to work full-time, then cut to four days, then took a one-year break. When I went back after that, it was half time, and when my second baby was born I took the career break I’m on now.

(Where is the father? I confess we fit a modern stereotype: he’s a committed feminist, an engaged parent, who earns considerably more than I do, in a career that doesn’t accommodate the kind of chopping and changing that I’ve undertaken – and even if it did, he wouldn’t be too enthusiastic about the idea. And at the same time, he is uncomfortable at being the sole earner in our household. Hooray.)

So, yes, obviously I’m enormously “lucky” to be in a position to do all this – the “family friendly” options available to me are a privilege denied thousands of other parents.

(The quotation marks around “lucky” and “family friendly”? We’ll come back to those.)

When I was working full-time in 2005, with my baby in a crèche, the economics of it angered me: the only reason why the crèche was “affordable” to us was that the women (yes, of course they were all women) who cared for our child were paid far less than my partner and I were. Their work, which was so utterly crucial to our family’s wellbeing, was apparently of considerably less “value” to society than ours.

To me, this is outrageously messed up. Yet in our current system, in the absence of free childcare from relatives, it’s usually the only way in which parents can sustainably work for pay – and as we know, a second or third set of childcare fees puts it out of reach for many.

(At my job, incidentally, I edit scholarly journals and monographs. I believe passionately in the effective dissemination of peer-reviewed research. But I don’t believe it’s intrinsically more valuable than providing a loving foundation for the development of a whole new person.)

Many children are happy in group care – and more are happy enough that it’s a good solution for the family.

Ours wasn’t.

I took my first career break largely for personal reasons: I had ignored my physical and mental needs to the extent that I was close to a breakdown, and in fact it was the HR manager at work who first suggested that I apply for time off. But within weeks, it became clear what a beneficial change it was for my child, too. I’ll never forget the transformation, in fact – from timid anxiety to … well, a much less heartbreaking native caution.

Lesson One: insofar as possible, parent the child you’ve got. One size does not fit all, and the size that seems a good fit for the parents may be overwhelming to the child.

Lesson Two: if the current setup isn’t functioning, it’s OK to try something else. (I wish I’d learned this one about six months earlier than I did.)

On career break, my anger became more raw. Suddenly, I was seen as “not working” – despite, from my perspective, working harder than I ever had in my life. The same caring tasks that the women in the crèche had done for low pay, I was doing for no pay and (it seemed) largely invisibly. The drop in status was as much of a shock to the system as the disappearance of my income.

We may note that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool-privileged-middle-class daughter of two (full-time) academics: nothing in my life had prepared me for the notion that my chosen contribution to society might be seen as anything less than completely worthy and valuable. Call me naive! It was an awakening.

Even my parents didn’t seem to get that I was doing “real” work by caring for my child. And actually, even I didn’t get it at first. My mother has worked full-time all my life, as did hers, and as I settled into the so-called “stay-at-home” routine I was shocked and ashamed to find myself revising my unarticulated opinion of my aunts, who had left their jobs when they had children. Oh my actual god, said I to myself, all these years, they were working, and I never knew!

Ah, but is it really work, Ted?

Some people – including feminist friends whose opinions I hold in high regard – disagree with me that caring for one’s own children is “work”. In my experience, though, that’s exactly what it is. I’m talking about things like changing nappies, preparing and serving food, managing hygiene, mediating conflicts, administering first aid, handling emotional squalls, providing a safe (and age-appropriate) environment to explore, introducing and enforcing behavioural conventions, maintaining a social circle, and so on. As far as I’m concerned, these activities are work. They might often be enjoyable, or feel vocational, but plenty of paid work fits those criteria.

I mean, if they’re not work, what are they?

LEISURE?

I don’t think so.

The fact remains, of course, that caring work, especially if done for no pay by parents or close relatives, is largely invisible. The reasons for this are complex, but chief among them is a widespread preoccupation in our culture with tangible, preferably measurable outputs. At the end of a day with my children – and I imagine the same is true of caring for a sick or elderly relative – all I really have to show for my work is their own inscrutable selves, one day older.

And yet Studies Show (no, seriously, they do) that the quality of care, particularly for younger children, matters enormously. Not to be sentimental about it, children thrive on love, and on the practical manifestations of love that a committed carer provides. Children who aren’t given a loving foundation are at risk of developing affects and behaviours that are harmful to themselves or others.

(NOTE, incidentally, that I am BY NO MEANS suggesting that this care need come exclusively from a parent – never mind a mother. Any loving adults with whom the child feels safe and happy can potentially provide it. Furthermore, children do best when their caring adults feel good about their choices. So you can put that straw man away, please.)

That’s all very cerebral. Where’s the anger?

Partly, it’s in the disconnect between society’s description of me as a “non-working mother”, on the one hand, and on the other hand, my experience of working enormously hard all day (and all of the night, too – neither of my children was “a sleeper” … though the elder one figured it out eventually, and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before the younger one does).

Paid carers generally get to do things like, oh, arriving at work and, concomitantly, going home again, after all. Many of them even get unaccompanied loo breaks – which in my recent life have been for considerable periods a halcyon dream.

So, to summarise, if you do a job that allows breaks every day, weekends, sick pay, holiday pay – and, in fact, pay in the first place – you’re “working”. BUT if you perform exactly the same tasks, without any of the breaks or the pay and with a 24/7 on-call clause, you’re “not working”. Run that one by me again?

Partly, it’s in the resonant unease I feel at the phrase “stay-at-home mother” – as though I’ve completely withdrawn from some notionally bounded space called “the world” into a mysterious sphere called “the home”, from which I rarely emerge. See also: feminist discourse of the last two centuries.

Partly, it’s in the fact that my paid work is totally incompatible with my unpaid work: I have to make an either/or choice, and even though my employer is “flexible”, relatively speaking, that choice feels very constrained. (Here, by the way, is why calling myself “lucky” to have such a “family-friendly” employer isn’t exactly straightforward for me.)

This is about the traditional workplace, which conceives of a “worker” as being free to devote uninterrupted chunks of daily time to the employer. You can’t do that while actively caring for a young child. The problem is often articulated as the assumption that a “worker” has a “wife” – in other words, is supported by somebody doing care and maintenance work in “the home”.

Partly, it’s in the idea that by choosing to care for my own children, rather than pay someone else a meagre sum to do so while I go and sell my labour to a third-party, I am in some sense no longer “contributing”. My work isn’t reflected in the gross national product at the moment, ergo it’s “less valuable” than when I was earning a salary. Bizarrely, this would be true no matter what I might have been doing to earn that salary.

Partly, it’s in the way our current structure for rewarding work completely precludes the possibility of anyone ever paying me for the (difficult, valuable) work I’m doing at the moment. The “product” of my caring work, if you like, will be my adult children. (This is of course a collaborative project between me, their father, and several other adults in their lives, but currently, I’m putting in the greatest number of hours.) If we do a “good” job, the children are more likely – though not guaranteed – to grow up to be happy, functional, thoughtful members of society. What’s that worth? Classically, nothing, because nobody is prepared to pay for it.

Hello, rage.

I think we need to do two things

First, we reframe the concept of “work”, so that it encompasses more than just labour sold for money.

Some of my starting points:

  • Anything I could reasonably pay someone else to do is work. (Yes, this unsettles some categories, such as “hobbies”; I’m OK with that.)
  • Work can be joyful or arduous, or anything in between, and this bears no relation to pay.
  • Everybody deserves opportunities to perform joyful work, and to be fairly compensated for some or all of the work that they do.
  • The cultural bias against unpaid work is strong: we need to pay attention to where we unintentionally fail to see such work and thereby denigrate those who do it.

Second, we restructure the traditional workplace to get rid of the notion that a worker needs a wife.

To do this, we might adapt my favourite approach to the “problem” of maternity leave – change the default so that every worker is treated as though they were pregnant – and treat every worker as though they had caring responsibilities.

(Actually, when I put it like that, wouldn’t it be fabulous to live in a society where that were true? Where the burden of caring for those who needed it was in fact shared by everybody who could contribute? Let’s do that, shall we.)

What this might look like, I’m not sure. On-site care facilities in all companies? Across-the-board reduction and flexibility in working hours? A move away from the traditional obsession with working at a specific time and place? Massively increased carers’ allowances? Mandatory burden-sharing agreements between the employers of co-parents? Bring Your Child to Work Day, every day? Certified Work-Life-Balance Counsellors helping to design an individual solution for each family?

I don’t know. It’s a huge question. Perhaps, in our lifetime, we won’t get there from here. But I’d like to think that we could try.

Meanwhile, while waiting for the revolution, ahahaha, and in parallel with my caring work, I’m pursuing various creative and entrepreneurial projects (fiction writing, textile art, blogging), which may or may not bear fruit before I return to my job next spring. I have all kinds of complex feelings about work, pay, value, and so forth, and I don’t imagine they’ll get much simpler as time goes on.

Note on language: You may have noticed that I didn’t state either my children’s assigned genders or my marital status in this piece. This was deliberate. They’re not relevant to what I’m saying here.

Right then. Off we go.

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This is a small rant, or maybe it’s not really a rant but an appeal. I was at the recent National Women’s Council of Ireland meeting titled ‘Women in the Media, Not’ and it was generally brilliant. There was an initiative to encourage radio and television producers to air more women, including an innovative list of possible experts in a wide range of areas so that the old excuse of ‘there are no women’ would not hold up. However a big element of the conference seemed to be to encourage women to say yes! if they are asked to give their opinion on any subject, as hesitation and unavailability are the real enemy to female participation in the media. A very encouraging and motivational atmosphere so far, the underlying message seemed to be that individual women had to take some responsibility for being out of the limelight, and increased exposure of any description is good for all women and especially girls who are used to taking a back seat.

However, one member of the panel got up to speak and revealed that a year ago she had been handed her ideal once-in-a-lifetime job. As editor of a newly launching news website she was being given creative and directional control, and full respect and power, by her financial backers, the only reservation she had going in was her two young children. She then rather painfully revealed that she had decided to give up this position, which she admitted to loving and being good at, as she could no longer cope with the responsibility of motherhood and a more-than full-time job. I say ‘painfully’, as the decision was still raw and the language she used to describe her obligation to her children was of guilt for neglecting them and uncomfortableness with leaving her children in substandard childcare (being unable to afford a more stable solution). I did not know what I expected after such a statement, but I’m still in shock over what did happen. Over the course of the conference audience members were allowed to talk and shortly one women rose to say she supported this journalist fully and that motherhood was the most important function of women and the youngest years were the most formative yadda yadda yadda and then someone else at the back concurred. Susan McKay as chair did emphasise that the NWCI supported all women, no matter their position, yet the one voice suggesting mothers and fathers be joint parents was lost.
Now, I do not know this journalist or her husband’s profession, and it’s none of my business personally how she arranges her work and childcare, but I was dissatisfied with the response from the room full of experienced worldly women. I realise now that I expected genuine sympathy for this journalist, and anger that she has all the opportunities in the world and is unable to take advantage of them. At a conference detailing the lack of women available to talk on radio, or appear on television, or write, we did not lament this loss of one more fiery journalist.
Parenthood is great, I’m sure and people do find it fulfilling, but in Ireland it is also a trap. By elevating expensive childcare out of reach of the poorer classes we denigrate their struggles as working parents and by elevating motherhood over parenthood, or any ‘other one versus the other’ mentality we will always feel guilty over our choices. That is another argument. This argument is: where is the anger? It may be an unanswerable question for the women’s movement, but that does not mean we should feel helpless. Why is no one else angry that this accomplished, intelligent woman has to sacrifice her dream job because she simply cannot juggle anymore? So I will say it now, to this woman. I am genuinely sorry that she had to give up a position that had obviously brought her much joy and professional satisfaction. I understand that she wanted to give her children the best childhood possible and I hope that they appreciate all that she does for them. I also hope that in the future there are more options available.
Anna-Lena Dubé Fuller is an Irish-Trinidadian artist studying Gender and Women’s Studies at Trinity College, Dublin. Some of  her work will be shown as part of the ‘Queer as Political’ art exhibition in Cork opening on June 3rd at The Other Place.

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All the talk of Obama’s visit to Ireland today, brings me back to the evening of his inauguration, January 20th 2009, when Himself came home to find me on the kitchen floor.

On my knees.

Surrounded by the usual mish-mash of baby changing paraphernalia – sudocreme, wipes, tiny nappies and – ahem – masking tape. SKY News was blaring on the TV, the spuds were boiling over on the hob and there was the distinct smell of overcooked fish emanating from the oven.

‘Eh – hi honey I’m home!’ he ventured, the tentative tone to his voice giving away his unease at the sight of his obviously grumpy, pregnant wife on her knees, immersed in chaos.

‘Don’t even start’, I spat.

‘Oh, right. Where is she?’
‘Where is she? Where is she? Well I’ll tell you where she isn’t! She isn’t here tending to her responsibilities like she should be.’ I brandished a half-dressed baby doll by one leg, nappy half masking-taped to her bottom.

He nodded a pathetic attempt at understanding and turned away, but I could see his shoulders start to shake with poorly disguised mirth.  He’d seen this coming and he was right.

It was all my own fault. As a mother of a two-year old with another on the way, I had decided it would be a great idea if Santa brought a baby doll, complete with nappies, bottles and a soother. All in the way of preparation for the new arrival. And in my defence, it had been a huge success. To be really honest, the exact level of success far exceeded both my expectations and my wishes.  Baby Millie was changed and fed to a routine that would put the most militant of nannies to shame. And to be fair, for those first three hours on Christmas morning, my enthusiasm surprised even myself. I supplied cheap wipes, an empty tub of sudocreme, an empty tub of talc, all in the name of education and preparation. I may even have shed a hormone induced tear as the brand new Mammy rocked her plastic newborn with the words, ‘Go to sleep my liddle baby.’

I was thrilled of course at her dedication to the project and thought it boded very well for the prospective welcome of the new sibling. Then, things started to slide slowly out of control. Due to my over exuberance on the paraphernalia front, baby Millie needed a changing bag. No problem. Mammy had a spare one. Great. Then empty tubs no longer sufficed. ‘She needs reeeal cream!’ was the wail. Then every time Baby Millie left the house over the course of the Christmas holidays, her little pink nappy bag had to be packed. Bottles, wipes, nappies… Her buggy had to go in the car; her car seat had to be strapped in…

‘But it’s a doll!’ He groaned one day as I ran back into the house to grab Baby Millie’s soother.

‘Not to her,’ I hissed.

By New Year, reality had sunk in. It seemed that not only was Daughter No. 1 being groomed for the new arrival, but so was Mammy. Instead of enjoying my last few tiny-baby-free months, I had given birth ‘prematurely’ to a plastic nightmare. Sweet, pink, innocent Baby Millie had shot me squarely in the foot. And it hurt. Not only could I now remember only too well the chaos a new baby brings, I was also starting to feel the exhausted pain and weariness of a modern ‘granny-before-her-time’, left holding the baby of her teenage daughter, at a time when she should be ‘finished with all that palaver’. Only this daughter wasn’t heading out to party with her friends. No, this one was abandoning nappy changes mid way through to resume a jigsaw, the words ‘You do it’ carelessly thrown over one shoulder being the only, ominous, similarity.

Of course Himself thinks it’s hilarious.

Well, the laugh will be on the other side of his face when I tell him Baby Millie needs a new buggy. After all, you can’t expect the child to push that flimsy plastic-rubbish down our potholed driveway. Yes change was coming to our house. As for Barack, I just loved that man. I know I supported Hilary in the early days, but even I know now, that she wouldn’t have brought the same wave of hope, of revolution, of thanks. It helps that he’s easy on the eye. It even helps that he smokes – ah sure you’d need him to have some bit of boldness about him. Oh, Mister President

So back to the evening of his inauguration. I know she was only two, but I decided that the day was too historic to let slide. Dragging her onto my knee I explained that the man on the screen was going to save us all, that he was a great man, that he was the first black American President. And then it suddenly occurred to me that his colour would mean nothing to her. That she was possibly belonging to the first generation for whom colour actually made no difference. After all, several of Barney’s little gang of friends were of various races and no comment had been passed yet.

Abandoning the history lesson lest I create an issue where none existed, I instead spent a half an hour teaching her to chant with her little fist in the air ‘Yes We Can!’ and sure she loved that.

Great Stuff.

And then it was time to change Baby Millie again and that was when Daddy walked in.

Finally getting off the floor, Baby Millie, changed and safely hidden behind the sofa for the evening, I called the child prodigy to come and show Daddy her new trick.

‘Who was the man on the TV, Belle?’
‘Ehmmm,’ she thought for a minute.
‘Come on Isabelle, What was the nice man’s name,’ I asked sweetly, whilst silently sending the telepathetic-message-of-a-pushy-parent We’ve practiced this, don’t let me down!

‘Obaba!’ she cried gleefully, the strange scary look in Mammy’s eyes having the desired effect.

‘And what does Obama say?’ I encouraged with relief.
And with that, she raised her little index finger in the air and exhibiting all the strength, belief and determination demonstrated by the great man himself she pointed straight at Daddy;

‘Yes You Will!!’

And now, two years later, she’s four. And she has a little sister and they knock lumps out of each other over Baby Millie and the three-wheeled-all-terrain buggy that Daddy was eventually forced to buy. Today, President Obama is coming to Ireland, and this time I’m going to have another go at the history lesson. I’m going to sit them both down, and let them see him on the screen, and hope that they’ll take at least some of it in.

Because Change is Coming.  I can feel it. I felt it with the Eurovision last week and I felt it again, even stronger, when the Queen of England walked on Irish soil for the first time.  And even though I don’t even claim to understand rugby, I felt it again when Leinster staged one of the greatest sporting comebacks of all time, to win the Heineken Cup on Saturday.

Can Ireland stage it’s own comeback? Not to the heady heights of the Celtic Tiger, but to dignity, pride and the feeling that all will never be lost.  Can we combine the energy of Jedward, the determination of Leinster and the beauty, grace and acceptance of the Ireland we showcased so flawlessly last week? Can we stop trying to be something we’re not, and instead relish all that we are?

All together now, girls…

‘Of course we can!’

Margaret Scott-Darcy lives in Kildare with her husband, daughters and a variety of animals. A full time accountant, she is also currently working on her first novel. Her blog MotherWorkerWriter can be found at www.mscottdarcy.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter: @mgtscott. 

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By releasing his birth certificate last month, Barack Obama was hoping to silence the ‘birthers’ who’ve been blabbing on about his place of birth for years. The image of his live birth certificate was instantly picked up by the media and bloggers. I happened upon it on some website and wanted to take a closer look. My eyes scanned down the page – yes, he was born on American soil. Case closed. But then I spotted a detail about his mother. I probably knew this before but I either forgot or never really took it in at the time. Barack Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham (Anna), was 18 when he was born.

I suppose I was struck first by the fact that Anna was so young when she had him and she went on to create a stable environment for her son and herself. You could say this mother did good – to have her son go on to become the President of the United States, be such a role model to millions of people and become a good father to his two daughters.

The other aspect, of course, is that Anna was a white woman who had a child with a black Kenyan man. The year, in case you forget, was 1961. Mixed race relationships were heavily frowned upon at the time – it couldn’t have been the easiest of environments for Anna to raise her child (although the family did move to Indonesia for a while and Barack lived in the more multi-cultural Hawaii during his teenage years).

But then again, from all reports, Anna was always a woman who marched to her own beat. She was smart, did well in school, was interested in culture and hung out with a crowd of liberals who read Sartre and Marx. She started classes at the University of Hawaii, which is where she met graduate student Obama Senior – he was seven years older than her. When she fell pregnant, the two married but it wasn’t to last long. They divorced in early 1964 and Anna went on to re-marry the next year.

I suppose what is most admirable about Anna is the fact that as well as bringing up the young Barack, she completed her degree and went on to become a leading light in the field of anthropology. She also devoted a lot of her time to human rights, women’s rights and helped support small industries, particularly those in rural areas of Indonesia.

Sadly, she died at a young age – just 52. She died within a year of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1995. A film on her life is in the works and Barack Obama has expressed, on many occasions and through his writings, his profound respect and love for his mother. While the eyes of the world have been on that all-important birthplace on a birth certificate, Anna also has her presence on that document. The 18-year-old college student without a clue of what the rest of her life would be or what her son’s life would go on to be.

Lisa Jewell is a freelance journalist based in Dublin who writes mostly on health, lifestyle and human interest stories. Follow her on Twitter: @LisaJewelldub.

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Four weeks ago today, as a sunny Sunday came to a close, I sat in the restaurant of a hotel in Clare. Perched on a clifftop, the view was of huge Atlantic waves crashing on the beach, the surfers long gone as the last light drained from the sky. My husband was putting our children to bed in a family room two floors up. Our two-day break was nearly over. I say break, but as any parent with small children will tell you, ‘break’ is the most ill-conceived description of a holiday with young kids. Tons of fun, yes. A relaxing rest, no. After adventure parks and bouncy castles, beach strolls and round towers (where I managed to convince my son that Rapunzel lived), we decided to grab an hour or two to ourselves for dinner. The babysitter was booked, I ordered our main courses and although the view bordered on romantic cliché, it was insanely pretty. The minutes ticked by, other diners looked at me sympathetically. My wedding ring and the book of short stories I was reading did nothing to dispel she’s-been-stood-up glances of pity. I texted my husband. My normally well-behaved children, bitten by the holiday hyperactivity bug, were having none of it. After milk, umpteen stories and back-rubs, there was outright mutiny. Sleep? No way!

Kate and Gerry McCann

I mentally cancelled the crème brûlée I had seen on another diner’s table. After nearly an hour of wrangling, my husband gave up and sent the babysitter away. The kindly restaurant manager offered to send our food up to our room. My heart sank. I adore my children, and I thought of their impish faces as I wearily pushed the button for the lift – but everyone needs time out. At the time, I didn’t think of Kate and Gerry McCann. A harried doctor couple with three kids under four (including daughter Madeleine) attempting a family holiday, while stealing time for themselves; for the couple they were before they had children. I didn’t think of them, because at no point did my husband or I – as good as the view looked and the steak smelled – suggest to each other that we leave our children in the room alone. The McCanns stayed in an apartment a short distance (but completely separate from) the Tapas bar  where they spent that fateful night. Our room was two floors up in the same building, with key card access, 30 seconds from the restaurant, but still the thought was not there. It wasn’t even that it was unuttered – it never entered our collective brains to begin with. Watching the McCanns being interviewed on The Late Late Show recently, I had a flashback to that Clare hotel. How could they have left their children alone?

It’s a question that every armchair critic and news corporation has been demanding of Kate and Gerry McCann. It’s probably the one they ask themselves every night as they go to bed without their daughter.  On the last night of their stay in Portugal, they did what they had done every other night. They gambled. They made what they thought (must have thought, as I still don’t understand their rationale) what seemed like an innocuous choice. Food and drinks with friends versus leaving their young children untended. Not only was their decision as catastrophic as it gets, it has made them parental pariahs accused of everything from wife-swapping to sedating their child and much worse. They told Ryan Tubridy the story they’ve told a thousand times to Spanish police, to newspapers, to everyone they know. Clearly, it never gets easier. Kate’s face, as she talked of the horrific moment of realising her daughter was gone, was taut with pain. Online reactions to the interview were harsh. Too harsh. Because they have paid the ultimate price, and will have to live with unquantifiable levels of regret and guilt. I understand their lives were stressful, that they were tired parents, that they were eking out some downtime together in the evenings. That’s where I understand Kate and Gerry McCann. But that’s where my comprehension ends, because of the unfathomable decision they made that night.

In a Clare hotel, the food arrived to our room and we drank a glass of wine. My son and daughter wanted to taste the potatoes, in between bouncing on the beds and giggling. My heart nearly burst looking at them. Half an hour earlier, I could have screamed at them. Tired, I lay down and my daughter cuddled up beside me, her curls tickling my cheek. Her gorgeous face, all big-eyed and cheeky staring at me. Of all the memories we made that weekend, that was the one etched in my mind during the McCann’s interview, thankful that I can feel my daughter’s skin and smell her hair every day of my lucky life. And I feel nothing but pity for the McCanns because they cannot do the same thing.

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In her how-to-be-a-writer book, Bird By Bird, the American author Anne Lamott has a section called ‘Publication – and other reasons to write’. My favourite chapter within this section is one that I hadn’t ever thought about until I read the book a decade ago: ‘Writing a present’. Lamott, who writes funny, true fiction and non-fiction, actually wrote her first published novel as a gift for her father, who was diagnosed with brain cancer. Her father didn’t live to see the finished article, but read each chapter in draft as Lamott wrote them.  The consequences, she says, were better than any publishing deal:

‘It helped my father have the best possible months before his death and the best possible death. I can actually say that it was great. Hard, and fucked six ways from Sunday, but great’.

Ever since I first read this, I’ve thought about presents that go beyond the obvious. One of my favourites is right next to me as I type this; a hand-made bookshelf given to my husband and I as a wedding present by a carpenter friend in Seattle. It always holds our preferred books, and every time I look at it, I think of its maker.

This week, I’m attempting a thank you of my own. I’m forty next month (shhhh) and feel like it’s probably time to own up to being grown up. So rather than (as well as) the parties and gratuitous celebrations, I’m running the London Marathon.

Next time, let's just buy everyone a bunch of flowers or go for dinner

(photo c/o http://www.providingnews.com)

The money I raise will go to a charity which offers residential help to little kids who are so vulnerable that even foster care isn’t an option for them. And the reason I’m doing this? To say a huge thank you to my parents, who got me through childhood in the best possible way; always securely and happily, with encouragement that stayed just the right side of supportive and never veered into pushy.

It’s not a novel, but it’s been a hard slog. Every single time I’ve gone out to train, I’ve thought about my folks; pictures from our past, things they’d say to keep me going; their faces smiling at me and not letting me give up.  And Anne Lamott’s right; having a broader reason for doing something has brought so much more to the goal. It’s not just a bloody long race; it’s a 26 (.2) mile thank you to people who’ve done the equivalent a hundred times over.

How do you say thank you? Or what’s the best gift you’ve ever received?

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It came out of the blue. At a family Sunday lunch in a local trattoria, my eight year old daughter made an announcement; “I want to be a thin girl”.

Her dad and I exchanged significant glances. Where was this coming from? Food, weight and dieting have never been an issue in our house. We own a set of scales but they spend most of their time covered in dust. We all love food and have been visiting restaurants regularly as a family since the children were babes in arms. They eat everything, from Chinese dim sum to big bowls of mussels on holiday in France. We encourage healthy eating but are not puritanical about treats, and have never forced them to finish everything on their plates.

Not something an eight year old should be doing

The thing is, she is a thin girl. She’s tall for her age, slim and, most important of all, healthy. The last thing I want is for her to start obsessing about food or feeling guilty about eating the things she enjoys.

Slightly floored by her declaration, I told her that she is already a perfect size. “But I want to be thinner” she replied. At this point I felt like shouting “Where are you getting these stupid notions?” My mind was racing. What is she hearing at school? Is it the American teenage comedies she watches on TV? Or is her desire to take up less space in the world the inevitable outcome of being surrounded by images of ridiculously thin models and celebrities? I bit my tongue and just told her that if she carries on dancing, cartwheeling and rollerblading she’ll be fine.

We moved on to other topics of conversation and she happily finished off her pasta and ice cream cone. No need to worry then – for the moment at least.

(Photo by puuikibeach on Flickr)

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I have two daughters aged nine and nearly seven.  And I think they’re gorgeous.

That’s all the validation I need – my own Mammy-eyes, which would view my children as gorgeous no matter what they looked like.

I don’t need to enter them in pageants for strangers to assess them and decide whether or not my two measure up to some one else’s notion of beautiful.

It seems, however, that one woman is of the opinion that there are enough parents in Ireland who disagree with me for her to make a few bob. This woman, Jorja Gudge, is hoping to bring a beauty pageant for girls under the age of 18 to Ireland next month.

Entitled ‘Miss Princess Ireland’ this pageant is slated to take place on April 30th in Dublin. According to Ms Gudge,

‘There will be three rounds which are; Sportswear this is any sporting wear (with a glitz touch). It  could be dance wear, swimwear, football, gymnastics etc… any sport at all.’

Leaving aside the fact that I don’t think dancing is a sport, I am very uncomfortable with the idea of young girls parading in sports wear – whether or not said sportswear has a ‘glitz touch’.  Virtually all sportswear is form-fitting and skimpy.  I don’t think it’s appropriate for little girls to be dressed in bikinis or leotards and paraded in front of strangers who will then grade them on how beautiful they are.

Wearing form-fitting sportswear for actually playing sport is, of course, a completely different matter.  I am happy to acknowledge that not all  sports outfits that are form-fitting, but I’d be willing to bet that any child turning up in a tracksuit won’t win a prize.

Next up in this pageant is what Ms Gudge calls ‘wow’ wear/ outfit of choice. This can be ‘anything at all – fashion wear, occasion wear, fancy dress or theme wear.’

This is a bit vague, but I’d guess that the idea is to dress your girl in her most eye-catching gúna and hope she catches the eyes of the judges.

Last of all will be formal wear. Formal wear for children sounds innocuous enough – it makes me think of lovely summery flower girl dresses from Monsoon, but I don’t think that’s what Ms Gudge means. I googled ‘Beauty Pageants for Children’ and got lots of very disturbing images of little girls in flouncy, tacky, meringue-y, dresses that were obviously styled along the lines of ball gowns for women.

‘Also make up, hair pieces, tans etc are all permitted as this is a glitz pageant, but I will leave the decision to you on which level of glitz you decide to use,’ the organiser tells me.

Again, this is disturbing, because it implicitly tells children that they are not good enough or acceptable just the way they are. Why on earth would anyone want to use make-up, hair pieces or tans on their children in an attempt to win an ‘American-style crowns, sashes and tiaras’? What does that do to the self-esteem of participants?

When they grow up, how will these girls view themselves? Their sense of themselves, surely, will be very extrinsic? Surely, their confidence – instead of being bolstered will be damaged? And what is the use of telling a child that their worth is based purely on how they look – or how they can make themselves look by the addition of chemicals and synthetic hair-pieces?

I’m also disturbed by the fact that people attending will also be able to bring their video cameras, although they will only be permitted to video their own children. I do wonder, however, how the organiser hopes to police that one.

I don’t think that these kind of pageants do the children who take part any favours at all. I don’t think they learn any positive lessons from them – and I think they are more about satisfying the desires and dreams of their parents (usually their mothers) than anything else.

I am hoping that the parents of Ireland will avoid this pageant – and ones like it – and spare their children the damage that could potentially be done to them.

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A couple I know recently adopted two little boys. The boys are four and five years old and had a very difficult start in life. I only know tiny bits of their history (I wouldn’t ask – it’s none of my business) but what I do know was enough to bring tears to my eyes. Initially, I welled up because of what the boys had seen and been through; then I welled up with gratitude that they had been removed from that situation and placed at the centre of a loving home and family.

These boys will be loved and cherished for the rest of their days. They now have the opportunity to have a childhood. They are part of an extended family which has embraced them and folded them into its bosom, letting them know that they are loved and accepted and wanted.

Should the unthinkable happen – and one of their parents become incapable, for whatever reason, of taking care of them – the other parent will step in and assume the role of sole care-giver. As is only right, of course, because they have adopted the boys together.

It’s just as well they’re in the UK, so, because they’d never get that security here in Ireland. You see, my friends – the adoptive parents – are gay. They have been in a committed relationship for over ten years, and five years ago, they become legally recognised as a couple. At the beginning of this year the adoption of their boys was finalised.

In Ireland, it is perfectly legal for a gay person to adopt a child – as a single person. Even if they are in a relationship, the non-adopting partner will not have equal parental rights – even though their relationship will have been taken into consideration during the adoption process.

This issue is back in the news again in Ireland because we have a new incoming government. They are ‘looking at things’ and trying to see what they can do to improve matters for citizens and residents.

I am stunned that we are even having a discussion about this. Why shouldn’t gay people be allowed to marry? Why shouldn’t they be allowed to adopt children as a couple? Surely the focus of any adoptive legislation should be on the child/ren involved and the perceived ability of the potential adoptive parents to parent?

Surely, as a nation, we should grow up and stop worrying about what loving, consenting adults do in their bedrooms? Surely, what is important is that the parents love each other and their children? Surely, all that matters is that children are loved, safe, secure and have their needs met? Surely, what their parents do or don’t do to express their love for each other in private is irrelevant?

I have heard the argument that the ‘ideal’ is for every child is to be brought up in a family with a mother and a father. And that’s marvellous – but guess what? Ideals are things we strive for, not standards that we impose as minimums and then use to punish people who don’t meet these minimums.

If we are to apply the ‘rule of ideals’ across the board and extrapolate it into every situation, I guess I should get my children ready to be taken into care. I’m a divorced woman with two children. That’s not ideal. My eldest child has not seen – or heard from – her father in five years. My youngest has never seen her father. Well, that’s not ideal either, is it?

I find it very difficult to comprehend how anyone would fight to deny a child a loving, secure, safe home. I am reminded of my own childhood. My parents were heterosexual and married to each other. For the first 15 years of my life, I went to bed worrying about which one of the heterosexual males floating around would get into bed beside me on any given night. I cried myself to sleep every night of my life until I was 20.

If you had offered me the choice between living with two, married heterosexual parents and suffering abuse – physical, mental, emotional, psychological and sexual – every day of my life and living with two homosexual parents who loved each other and loved me, I would have walked across hot coals to get access to the latter.

Heck! I’d have gone to live with two homosexual orang utans if it would have meant that I would have been safe.

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