One of the things you may not know about me is that I’m a qualified pyrotechnic. In the words of my analyst, and possibly the only time in nine years he ever had to stifle a laugh, “So, what you’re saying is that you like big bangs?”.
At a bleak turning forty moment my BFF took me off to Luton to learn the art of blowing stuff up courtesy of Fantastic Fireworks. Tagline: 25 Years of Wow. I’d damaged my pelvic floor from chronic laughter way before our arrival by reading the fireworks catalogue. From King of the Rockets to Thunderous Finale, nothing like the dirty stuff of explosives to shake you out of an existential.
In contrast to our puerile excitement, on arrival we found ourselves amongst depressed parents sent to learn how to manage the bonfire night celebrations at their kids schools. We were literally the only people who actually liked fireworks making it a strangely, urm, uptight dynamic, not helped by the obvious fact that letting of explosives precludes the softening influence of alcohol.
The mood was set as we picked up our name tags. There were only three women in the group, two called Jane. My BFF joked to Jane II that they would have a hell of a time working out which Jane badge was theirs. Jane II stared blankly. And so the humour fault lines were drawn.
This was followed by a two hour HSE lecture about erectiles and explosive trajectories presented in perfect deadpan. At one point, with no hope of reaching the door I tried to crawl under my chair to contain my rising hysteria. I gasped to BFF “Just leave me here, save yourself” as she darted for the emergency exit.
After some enforced quiet time locked in the lavs, I spent possibly the best three hours of my life in a field blowing stuff up with a gas gun. Like demented Teletubbies in our safety gear we ran from one explosive to another, screaming madly. Smoke trails of mortar bombs in the sky, no sparkles just the explosive essence of joy. Thirty middle aged people too polite to say that we were there simply for the big bangs.
On the train back we drew up a business plan for post-work life – buying a field somewhere outside Swindon where people can come to blow up old fridges. Merchandising with handbag fireworks for those dull staff meetings and an app with firework display soundtracks with no Dire Straits. Seriously, say this wouldn’t massively improve your chances of happiness.
I’m telling you this about my love of fireworks because on this 5th of November I will be engaged in a kind of big bang. At some point over the next few days I will be having a baby. A boy, whatever that now means, who brought me back to myself. A true survivor, biologically programmed to become a warrior.
I have been a bit shy about disclosing I’m a pregnant person in part because over the last few months I have become unsure about how to talk about surviving work. I have a few months maternity leave ahead, a precious jewel of employment rights, but the last few weeks have been ripe with pathos and sadness.
Firstly there’s the extraordinary experience of having to navigate the NHS as a patient, rather than as someone who just knows quite a lot about healthcare. I’ll short-cut this for you – it doesn’t matter how much expertise you have it comes down to finding experienced human beings and then chaining yourself to them. There are an enormous number of experienced skilled staff who still care in the system. But because the cornerstones of consistency plus care have been totally bred out of the NHS, you have to approach patient hood like a war campaign. Sadly, the realities demand you spend a lot of your time ignoring ignorance and ducking the sadistic power games that get played out between clinicians and patients in a context of profound systemic failure and underfunding. If you want to understand the epoch of societal cannibalism we have now entered just go to a labour ward in any central London hospital and you’ll learn something.
Having a baby in the NHS is not the stuff of life affirming positivity. More the collision of the NHS’s fear of clinical negligence claims and their attempts to manage failure by pathologising late parenthood. And no, I do not recommend saying any of that out loud while in the hands of maternity services because sanctions will surely follow.
Two things about working-while-pregnant have really stood out. The first will not stun the parents amongst you. That some will wait for day one of your parental leave to go for the professional jugular. Just saying that I lost ten days of maternity leave sorting out an intentional unravelling of my career motivated by pure professional envy. Gents, I can’t thank you enough for clarifying the importance of not mixing babies and work. On the bright side, as my father pointed out, “Well at least you know a career in the public sector has been downgraded to a just-about-enough-to-live-on-job before you even had a baby”. Yes indeed, the reality that one in seven women will lose their jobs after maternity leave and over 60,000 will lose their jobs just for getting pregnant, it’s always good to know where you stand right from the get-go.
The second is harder to articulate because it is about letting go of a specific idea of meaningful work.
Despite being unsafe to move more than ten metres away from a toilet, last week I decided to wave goodbye to work by going to the launch of a review of the UK government’s mental health policy, carried out by the All Party Parliamentary Group for Mental Health. Workforce crises, un-recovery, anti-psychiatry and the opportunity to have a pop at Matt Hancock, NOW you’re talking.
Except I wasn’t.
Firstly national security meant that I was an hour late into the building to be told that it had been moved to the House of Lords. One good thing about being pregnant is that people in authority think you’re normal, bit like having a dog, so a kind policeman walked me through the palace of Westminster to the meeting. I made it to this select meeting of service users and shiny young people interning at mental health charities discussing whether the government’s MH policy is working. Kind and brave service users asking for more money, and some experienced retired psychiatrists who have nothing to lose having a go at ministers for designing the strategic downgrading of care. The childish joy of watching Matt Hancock and his tribe of royal blue suited newly-beardless men walk out in a swift huff. The serious steady work of the mainly female MPs trying to highlight the challenges ahead without upsetting the political apple cart. Ladies, I salute you.
In the well trodden post-event mess of lobbying and networking, I found myself strangely quiet. Lobbying is something I have learned to excel at having worked for many years in trade unions. Working in the mining sector I learned to hide my nerves and my sex and get stuck in to blatant self-promotion and talking over people. Up to a point this has worked but since I’ve had this fecund lump sticking out of my body, things have gone back several decades worth of emancipation and suddenly I cannot be heard.
In conversation I was erased. At one point a young political man sophisticated in LGBT politics and high level lobbying, did a move worthy of a much less enlightened person. As I spoke about my research on the workforce crisis in mental health (seminal, people, I say it’s seminal) he processed that I was of no professional use to him and walked off mid sentence. As if I didn’t exist. Despite his own history of being excluded from political elites, he just decided I wasn’t important enough to waste time on. I had a flash back of my sister’s pep talk preparing me for her works’ Christmas Party in New York some years ago saying ‘if you can’t tell people why you matter in five seconds they’ll walk off’. Clearly Le Bump was letting the side down.
This silencing has been a common experience for me since I stopped hiding my pregnant state. I made a joke so as to not end this period of working life sweating and angry and wandered out of Westminster hardly able to breath from the complexities of ‘leaving’ work.
The strange thing is that of all the biological processes that should have made the gender divide even starker than the usual everyday discrimination, my experience over the last few months has crossed the gender and sexuality divides. Often men have been more engaged and interested in this future child – talking of their love for their kids and the emotional focus of their lives. Some colleagues have backed away from me, my motherhood a challenge to an outdated image of where I fit in. An uncomfortable box labelled underdog that, like all of my shoes, no longer quite fits.
This is not a simple divide between parents and not-parents. With or without children, we project our experiences of what it means to be in or out onto others. Far from entering a colony of parental privilege, my experience is that many parents are depressed about my prospects of being happy with child. I’ve been told I’ll lose my hair. And my teeth. And never sleep again. At best pity. Maybe more realistically, at a time when the inconvenient truth of misogyny means it is redefined as nothing to do with hate, discrimination becomes erased as a crime feeding into my fears that I’ll never work again.
In my lifetime I have been profoundly lucky with work. Both because of and despite my contracts of employment, I have loved my working life. Teaching and writing, organising and psychotherapy I realise that this is not a dream come true for most but for me powerfully meaningful. A real privilege to learn about the dark and light of working life. How grateful I am for this.
But even with a ‘good’ job there is always a fight over the value of what we do. As the feminist-aunts-&-uncles of my boy steadily remind me, we have always had to challenge the de-valuation of what our bodies can do. Whether its expressing how we feel about work, having relationships with the people we work with or having a child, we all walk the line of keeping our jobs and committing acts of indecent independence. The audacity of procreating without permission. To create something of my own that is valued above a particular job and my place in the political food chain.
In the downgraded arena of work our value is just where we place it. Sometimes this means taking the risk of doing what you need to do for yourself, whatever the explosions this may cause.
Sometimes you have to allow yourself to go for the big bangs.
Surviving Work will be back in 2019 with an opinion or two about something.
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