A word that roars

Number 1 friend and I were chatting about some bollocks or other, as is our way and during the course of the bollocks I happened to say: I’m not a feminist. “You what!” she exclaimed. “I’d say you are definitely a feminist!” So that was that.

Except it wasn’t, because of course, it got me thinking. I’ve known my friend for years. She’s that friend that has so much shit on you that you can never, ever fall out. Yet here we were disagreeing on a word. Evidently ‘feminist’ means something slightly different to the two of us. Well, make that three, because a few days later my number 1 New Zealand friend piped up on a Facebook feed in response to me mentioning that word again. ‘Pardon me for jumping in on your conversation, but do you not think you’re a feminist Al?’ Oh crikey, I thought. I really do need to give this one some thought. This basically means talking to partner about it – usually on a dog walk. 

‘So, do you think I’m a feminist?’ I asked him. He thought I was. ‘But I hate that word’, I grumbled. ‘And besides, men often say they are feminists and it just sounds wrong.’

I was clearly struggling with this one. ‘We need a new word,’ I told him. ‘One that can be used by men and women, that doesn’t, as my friend number 1 New Zealand friend said, carry: ‘connotations of being bra burning, staunch, anti-men..when in fact a feminist can just be pro-women.’ She has a PhD in Linguistics, so I decided that she was the person for the job.

A little while later she messaged me: At the moment all my ideas sound like feminine hygiene products

This is my problem too. So now I am looking to a new word: empowerment. Because, you see, I know that I want my daughters to be empowered and I wrote about it in my post: Lionize the nice girl. I want them to have a voice and I know that it’s going to need to be the size of a lion’s roar to get heard. But we mustn’t forget the boys. They need to be empowered too: partly to keep up with the girls and partly because they too are not always equal to others. Take the recent news stories about the sexual abuse suffered by young football players at the mercy of their coach. Where was their voice? Where is the voice of the boy who is being bullied for being different? Where is the voice of the boy who thinks he may be gay? We need to make sure that all our children have a voice.

So, if I am not happy about referring to myself as a feminist, while men are quite happy to call themselves one. If being a feminist is actually as simple as equality for both sexes and if equality for all means ensuring that our kids are empowered, then we definitely need to come up with something more inclusive and encompassing. A word that excludes bigots, racists and homophobes. A word that eschews misogyny and bullies. We need a word that roars.

When we find this word, it will marked as a new turn in history. It will be known as the time when we realised that actually, things work a lot better when there is equality and that the world is a more equal place when everyone has a voice. When we find this word, I will use it.

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Time on our side

It was just daughter 1 and I for a couple of hours tonight. I cooked a special meal for her and I really enjoyed doing it. I wanted to do it. I kept an eagle eye on the time so that it was ready for her when she walked in the door. She asked about my day and I told her some of the little details that I wouldn’t normally bother with in a busy house, because they would get drowned out. In a busy house I lower my expectations of what I can achieve, yet I raise my expectations of my girls. I snatch at conversation and so it feels as if I snatch at parenting them too. I bark my expectations to them and struggle to find the time to listen to and explore their responses and explanations. In the quiet and calmness of the house tonight, I had the mental energy to let my guard down, in the knowledge that if it backfired I had the time to rectify it. In a busy house I cannot take that risk. There is no time for risks. As parents we must follow the parental code, laid down by…by who? Dictated by how we were raised, by the media, by how books tell us to do it? Tonight, with time and space, I felt free from these societal restrictions and I just relaxed and chatted. It was calmly liberating. Nothing earth shattering – it just felt so different from how I normally am.

It got me thinking about how as parents, we are so constrained by so many factors, all of which are setting our expectations of parenting. Our gut feeling gets lost amidst the Facebook feed and the Pinterest. We talk to our friends and other mothers at the school gate about how to manage a situation, but by then the moment has often passed. Save that thought for the next time it happens, we think. But the next time it happens we are fraught with anger and anxiety and a lack of time.

A lack of time. None of us have time. Teenagers don’t have time to listen to parents anyway, because we will be upstaged by the next Snapchat notification that must be responded to for fear of rejection from the people who really seem to matter to them right now – their friends. We must accept this and in the hustle and bustle of our busy lives it is quite easy to let it go, albeit with a moan, but we accept.

We accept, we moan, we listen, but all in a very busy way. All within the context of a very busy life. So tonight was a treat. For the time it took my daughter to eat the meal that I had lovingly prepared, we were able to chat without fear of jealousy or interruption from siblings. Without fear of saying the wrong thing, of parenting the wrong way. We had time on our side and it has made me realise that if, as parents we always had time on our side, we might all be a little different.

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Autumn spoils

I have just spent an hour clearing up a whole load of mess that didn’t even belong to me. It was fly tipped on to my property, with no regard for my personal space. There are no reprimands to be given, no fines to be doled out, because the culprit is Autumn.

Autumn came late. We were ready for her, but she took her time. Then she arrived in all her glory, like a starlet arriving late to a party, in the most exquisite dress you have ever seen. A mixture of crimson and green, woven together with a golden thread. She brought a chill that doesn’t freeze you – it just wakes you up a little after the dozy warmth of Summer and makes your senses feel alive. Dusty cobwebs were brushed off trusted wellie boots and you discovered that none of them any longer fit.

The leaves fell on plants that were still flowering from Summer, but Autumn didn’t care and nor did we. We just admired the clash of colours that bright pink geranium petals made with oak and sycamore. We scoffed at the red and white cyclamen for sale in hanging baskets that were being touted as a winter treat. Winter? We laughed that two season’s flowers are company, but three would be a crowd.

We didn’t laugh for long, as Winter came. Snow up North? Even the newspapers couldn’t keep up with the chameleon that was the seasons. We scraped the ice from the car in clear view of the huge, pink and purple flowers of the clematis that adorned the trellis and shook our heads in disbelief. Nothing seemed to make sense this year: the garden was merely reflecting political uncertainties. We jumped in the chilly car and carried on.

As I picked up the rubbish that Autumn has left behind this morning, I thought about how things do just carry on. Eventually, time took the edge off the beauty of Autumn. It’s left me with a garden full of leaves, when I don’t even have trees of my own. I want to tidy up before the icy grip of Winter takes hold, but I am looking at Summer flowers and I’m not sure if I can cut them down. Confusion in both the garden and the globe. What is going to happen in our children’s future, if there is so much confusion now? How much time and effort should we be putting in to worry?

I pick the rake back up and carry on. Dead leaves, mixed with empty crisp packets and some wrappers that the wind has thrown in. I tie the spoils of Autumn up in a large, black sack and I leave the flowers of Summer, wondering how long they can last.

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The Voice of Experience Talks Bringing Up Teens

Quite often I see threads on my local mums’ Facebook page about how to discipline a teenager. I read these threads that are detailing the issues they are having and I nod along going: yup, yup, yup, like some kind of nodding dog. They are usually asking for advice, which although I don’t always jump in and give as I don’t necessarily feel equipped to, I do find myself questioning what I do, or how I think I would react.

With each teenager, I am experiencing new things and coming up against new issues. The issues that existed with my step daughter are now different for my daughters and so on. Life changes and evolves in all sorts of ways and as parents, we must be prepared to move with it.

With this in mind, I thought I would write another post in my: Voice of Experience series. Not because I feel that I have all the answers to teenage/parent angst, but because I have picked up a few things that have worked and are working for me on my journey.

The Voice of Experience Talks Bringing Up Teens

Sometimes against every gut feeling in your body, show them and tell them that you trust them. If someone feels they aren’t trusted, they are more inclined to stray. It builds up a huge amount of resentment. Trust is an essential part of any relationship and it is certainly important with teens.

Equally, make them aware of your expectations surrounding this trust. This gives them boundaries to push against, and therefore the security that you care and that what they do matters to you. 

Communicate with them. Try to get them out of the house and on neutral ground. A walk is perfect, whether it’s a dog walk, a walk around town, even a trip to the supermarket. Stepping into their bedroom with the words: ‘we need to talk’, is guaranteed to switch them off.

Don’t be afraid to thrash things out. You cannot avoid confrontation for an easier life. If you haven’t got the energy to deal with it, put it on hold until you have. Sometimes it’s good to let the dust settle. 

Don’t set unrealistic rules and be prepared to be flexible. Don’t see this as backing down. Often if you listen to your teen they are making valid points about something that you may have previously dismissed. Not listening to their point of view will push them away and closer to their friends who will always agree with them. 

Try to keep them close. You will feel that you are losing them, but you are not. Don’t smother them, let them go and ironically this will keep them closer to you. As they start to seek independence, to spend more time in their rooms and less time on family activities, don’t panic – this is normal. At about the age of 15, they will probably stop bothering to come downstairs to say goodnight. Don’t hold it against them, it’s nothing serious.

Don’t use cutting off their lifelines as punishments: their friends, their phones, social media. They quite literally are their lifelines. By doing this you are simply making them feel even more isolated and less likely to cooperate. If they see that you are listening to them and trying to understand, then they are far more likely to play ball. 

Acceptance is so important. Accept that they are going to push against you. Accept that they are going to break some rules. Pick your battles. It is not a reflection on your inability to parent, it is a sign that they are growing up.

Embrace their noise! Be happy that they have a voice. Teach them how to argue effectively and to put their point of view across.

Throw comments into conversations. Snatched moments are all you may get with a teenager, so use them in a way that you haven’t perhaps before. Don’t see it as futile and worry that you’re not getting time with your teen to get a message across. If you sit down at a table and talk to them for 10 minutes, they will only be listening to a tiny part of the conversation anyway and will actually remember even less of it. Think back to those throwaway comments people have said to you in the past that you remember. Sound bites have a place – be a parent politician.

Please add your thoughts in the comments box. Let’s share the challenges and celebrate the successes!

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Grab what you know by the balls

Is it just me, or are people getting excited about Christmas earlier this year? Yesterday a friend posted a photo on Instagram of Christmas decorations adorning a window, with the words: sorry, not sorry. Today another friend has posted a video of her decorating her tree. It’s November! And not even the end of the month.

I have a theory on this. The world is in a very strange place. Life carries on: the kids have to get to school, we have to get to work and the dust still settles. However, underlying all of this is the knowledge that Brexit is probably/possibly going to fuck up our finances and Trump is going to probably/possibly fuck up everything. Alongside both these matters, you’ve got the constant niggle of Europe becoming frighteningly right wing and the worry that you won’t get your hands on a Hatchimal. In fact, so worried are people about this, a family organisation has issued a letter from Santa that parents can show their kids, telling them that: ‘due to the current climate within the North Pole it has been decided that Hatchimals will no longer be given out as presents.’

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So, my theory is that with all this terrible uncertainly bubbling under our everyday lives, we have to grab what we know to be real by the baubles and thrash the life out of it. Christmas is the one thing that is certain right now: we know the dates, we know where the decorations are, basically we know the routine. Even the stresses are reliably inevitable. Choosing presents gives us a clear focus. People are even getting a buzz from: the Elf on the Shelf. I had to Google it – only to find out that they’ve been around since 2005. I have clearly had my head shoved right up my own arse, because I had absolutely no idea what it was until yesterday, via a Facebook post asking whether anyone else finds them creepy. Creepy? We’re living in a world with Donald Trump’s face plastered all over the place. Trust me, that elf on a shelf looks like a choir boy.

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My theory also extends to explaining why Ed Balls is still on Strictly, when he is so clearly shit. Not even funny shit, just shit. He’s a known. Completely harmless dressed as a Grinch, there is no way this one is going to steal Christmas.

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In times of uncertainty, we need to grab what’s real by the balls. We need to get out our Christmas decorations early and focus on certainties: friends, family and Christmas spirit.

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Give and take

On my birthday morning, I was jumped on in bed by two big, hairy males. That made three big, hairy males in my bed. They were all warming me up. I felt loved. Two of them started licking me, ferociously – ‘a little too loved,’ I told them. One of them then got the hiccups and with each of his breaths, I felt as if I was being knocked a little bit sideways.

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As I lay there all loved up and having been woken prematurely by two of them I had time on my side, I set off thinking about the similarities between toddlers and dogs. Because years ago, it wouldn’t have been dogs jumping on me rather too early in the morning, it would have been kids.

We got the dogs at a time when our lives had settled into a very pleasant routine of weekend lie-ins and leisurely baths. Wine in front of the fire, sprawled out on a shaggy, cream carpet. Teenagers who happily stay in bed and don’t start demanding anything until about midday. No more baby shit to clean up, projectile vomit was a thing of the past and a thing of the future. The here and now was pretty easy.

The thing is, I don’t do, ‘easy’. I need to have constant challenges in my life. Three kids just wasn’t enough and I was fortunate enough to have four. Four kids under 5 satiated me for a while, but then I was on the prowl for something else. Competing in Taekwon-do for England hit the spot. Now, years later, it’s dogs.

Dogs and toddlers wake you up too early. Dogs and toddlers piss on the carpet. Dogs and toddlers interfere with sex. I can no longer lounge on a cream carpet, casually putting my wine glass down on the floor. My bowl of nibbles is not my own. I have a pair of soulful eyes looking at the crisps and then at me, and when I turn my back, bam the crisps are gone.

Life is suddenly a bit of a challenge again.

But just as I learnt some tricks on how to deal with the demanding toddlers, so I am using the exact same survival techniques with the dogs. Put them in the car 5 minutes before you intend to leave – it’s all about head space. No squeaky toys for the same reason. Make sure there are toys in their beds for them to play with first thing. Take them out of the house and exhaust them – there should be soft play for dogs.

Of course, just like the toddlers, I wouldn’t be without them. The unconditional love they give, is worth the challenges they provide. We all need a purpose and without these constant little challenges in our lives, we would flounder in an abyss. I do wonder, however, how parents of toddlers and dogs cope. There’s a challenge I am happy that I never have to face.

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The Art of Communication

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Whilst chatting to number 1 friend about communication the other day, I realised just how bloody complicated the art of communication actually is. No wonder it’s called an, ‘art’. It certainly deserves that accolade.

Recently I’ve read a few, ‘what not to say’ posts by other bloggers: what not to say to parents who adopt, what not to say to parents of an autistic child and so on. Personally, I find these blogs very useful, because I’m one of those people that may well just say one of those: what not to says. These sorts of blogs have, however, made me slightly paranoid when talking to other parents now. As I’m talking to someone, I may be so busy thinking: can I say this or that, I feel like I’m jumping around like a cat on a hot tin roof. If I think that I may have said the wrong thing, I always recount it to number one friend, who communicates with me via her facial expressions, before any words need to be uttered. ‘Oh shit!’ I often think to myself, as her face contorts into a, ‘you shouldn’t have said that’ sort of gurn.

Anyway, back to our chat the other day and we were discussing the fact that if someone asks your opinion, then of course you are free to give it and they understand that you may not agree and are happy to accept the consequences of this. Conversely, if someone is simply telling you about a situation, then take the time to listen. Gauge how you think they feel and respond accordingly, in a supportive manner. If you disagree with what they are saying, then gently put your point across using non-inflammatory language. If not, they may become defensive and this only serves to close down any further communication. Jeez, complicated huh?

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I think that we get most defensive with the people closest to us: our parents and our partners. We’re far more tolerant, generally, of other people’s views. There are some days when I can’t complete a single conversation with one of my daughters, because her defensiveness keeps shutting them down. This is one of the most frustrating aspects of teenage behaviour. There are basically only two viable solutions: hitting a wall and wine. Yes, hitting both, hard.

So, considering that a large part of teenage communication is via a screen, are their communication skills going to suffer? I think that it is vital that we ensure that our kids are brought up to value social interaction and to understand its importance. But what about when they are parents themselves? I wasn’t stuck to a screen the way my kids are and so my values will not reflect theirs. How much importance will they put on their own children’s communication skills? Time will tell. The art of communication may not die, but it will certainly continue to take on new aspects, just as any form of art does over time.

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It’s only banter, right?

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“She’s got a fit body – if you put a paper bag over her head.”

Just a bit of banter. Laugh it off, even though it kicked you in the stomach and made you feel sick. Your friends are all laughing, so it must be ok.

Right?

You want to throw something back. You’ve got a split second to think, but the pressure of those laughing faces is stifling your humour. So you let it go.

Again.

“Shorty won’t be served.” “Get short arse a stool.” “Are their dwarfs in your family?”

He’s only joking.

Always joking. But you don’t find it funny any more. In fact, you never did. He’s the lad. He’s the prankster of the class and he makes people laugh.

So he must be funny.

But you can’t laugh it off. You must be weird for not getting his bants. You can’t take a joke. Perhaps you’re stuck up like he tells you that you are. You thought he was a mate, but he makes you feel like shit.

Everyday.

“He’s a prick” your other friends tell you. “Just ignore him and he’ll leave it.”

But he doesn’t.

You want to be witty and give the banter back. The trouble is, you’re just not feeling it. His comments aren’t making you feel like a laugh. They aren’t exactly cracking you up.

Just cracking you up inside.

His banter is making you feel like the smallest person in the world. The person he is telling you that you are. You are small and ugly and you can’t see anything else.

You ARE small AND ugly.

“Fuck off, you twat!”

Now you’re an attention seeker for daring to answer back. You’re a loser and you wish you’d kept your mouth shut.

It’s easier that way.

It’s easier for him. It’s easier for you, but you are a victim and you’re carrying that everywhere inside.

“Stop being a victim” your mum tells you. “Stand up to him'” she says.

But you haven’t got the banter, or the will to or the strength. You are usually strong, but not today. Not any day. Not with him.

You never feel strong with him. He’s a bully. You’re not giving it back. You are being targeted. It’s personal.

It hurts.

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Lionize the nice girl

We all want our daughters to be nice, right? Polite and agreeable. We want our teenagers to tow the line, because it makes our lives a whole lot more pleasant. We want them to think of others and not be the one causing upsets. We want them to dress appropriately – pull that skirt down a little and less of the cleavage. Basically, as parents we want them to be accepting and tolerant and that way we have a happy home.

The trouble is, that being nice is curtailing their potential and limiting their superpowers and let’s face it, if Wonder Woman is deemed appropriate as the UN’s Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls, then they are all going to need to don their capes and, as Rachel Simmons talks about in her book: ‘The Curse of the Good Girl’, ‘lionize the nice girl’.

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So here’s my problem as their mum. A lion is a force to be reckoned with. I want to empower my daughters, but I don’t want them to be wild and uncontrollable. I want them to have an opinion, but I also want to teach them to listen. I want them to stand their ground, but I want them to be able to accept that they aren’t always right – even if they are a lion. A lion is king of the jungle, but I am still queen of this house.

Being a nice girl is a high standard to live up to and when they fail to keep it up they can become hampered by self-criticism. Add to this the pressures of having to look a certain way in order to achieve those all important ‘likes’ and you suddenly realise why so many girls suffer from depression and anxiety.

I had naively thought that by the time my girls were adults, the genders would be pretty much equal. I am still shocked that they aren’t. What’s going on? Why can’t we have equal pay? Why are we still subject to high levels of gender-based violence and sexual abuse? Why is there still inequality in sport? Why is there still discrimination and harassment in the work place? Why aren’t women’s voices being heard?

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I want my daughters to be heard. Right now, I just really want them to have an opinion. I want to cut though their apathy on issues that affect them and their future. So I will keep asking their opinions, even if, for now, I get little back. They have time on their side, but I must lay the groundwork. I must put in the hard graft and get it right, now.

I must focus on how they are doing at school and not on their appearance. I must encourage them to try new things and make them aware of strong female role models. I need to tell my daughters that they don’t need to be liked by everyone, but that the right types of friendship are important. I’m not going to make decisions for them and they must take responsibility for their actions. I will help them to solve problems, but ultimately they must solve them themselves.

Does all this turn my girls into lions? I still want them to be what they are: girls.

Strong and sassy girls, who know how to challenge authority in a way that produces results. I want them to have the confidence to make waves.

I have my own mantras as a mum. They help. I think that these mantras, mentioned by clinical psychologist Barbara Greenberg, are fantastic for our daughters and of course for sons too:

  • Make a decision from a place of power, not pressure
  • In most situations you aren’t the subject of scrutiny, so be less self-conscious
  • Kindness is the best form of communication
  • Remember who you are

I will embrace who you are and I will prepare you as best I can for the challenges ahead.

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Not Just The 3 Of Us

 

 

 

 

A Cacophony of women

Yesterday, I was at Blogfest16 which is organised by Mumsnet, the UK’s biggest parenting network. The day consisted of various discussion groups with panels made up of some extremely inspirational and successful women: in politics, comediennes, authors, campaigners and the day was rounded up with a keynote speech from Davina McCall. It was a day that was rich in women. The audience was packed with them – most bloggers are female and I counted 4 men. As I listened to the speakers, I thought to myself how uncomfortable it must be to be a man in the audience. Themes began to emerge and repeat themselves. As the panels changed and a new group of women spoke about an entirely different subject, the same issues were being said over and over again and what was being voiced was just how much woman struggle in the face of men. Even these wonderfully intelligent and incredibly strong women were telling us that they have to fight because of men, again and again. I use the word ‘fight’, because from where I was sitting it sounded as if it was a daily battle to deal with the overbearing strength of the males in our society. Women’s voices aren’t heard, they were saying. We have to shout, but men don’t like us shouting because we are supposed to be happy and when we shout we don’t appear happy and when we don’t appear happy the foundations of society are rocked. Shouts of complaint are referred to as ‘moans’. Haters on line are always male, one panelist said. Ignore, ignore, ignore was the repeated advice. Sexism in the workplace is still rife, particularly in certain sectors – commercial radio didn’t get good press. Women must support each other, was another emerging and recurring theme. I sat and listened and I sat and thought: but we are not supporting each other. I read comments where women are judging women on line every day. Forty two per cent of Trump’s voters were women. Women who would rather vote for a man who demeaned them and bragged about sexual assault, than support a woman’s bid to be the first female president. I have recently been thinking about how there are still huge inequalities between men and women and as I spent the whole day listening to these strong women, it really brought it home to me, when I saw that even they seem to be struggling to be heard on the same grounds as men. Venus and Mars are still miles apart. “Women, support each other” they said, but the truth is: we don’t.

I suddenly felt a huge responsibility, as I have 5 daughters I can influence. I questioned whether I am doing enough to make them realise the task that lies ahead for them. How can I best equip them to be able to fight these battles? I don’t want them to be afraid of what the future holds, but I want them to be aware of these divides: forewarned is forearmed. Yet teenagers don’t seem ready for this fight, or particularly interested or bothered. This worries me. There is a palpable apathy that comes from their attentions being drawn on line to other things: to a celebrity, selfie, body-obsessed culture. A culture where fighting male dominance is irrelevant, but rather grabbing their attention is key. Just getting attention, anyone’s. It’s less about supporting other girls than comparing. It’s less about ignoring the haters, than letting them affect you and allowing them to drive you to being someone you are not.

I thought about my teenage years. I remembered the abuse I got from male friends through banter and how I didn’t know how to deal with it, so I took it. Harmless right? But it hurt. It confused me. Because I never learnt how to deal with it, I carried this confusion through my 20’s and 30’s – accepting that the male voice is louder. Expecting to be talked over. Expecting my voice to be the smallest in the company of men. 

Last night in the post-Blogfest bar, partner said to me suddenly: “listen.” There was a cacophony of female voices. Loud, deliberate, intelligent and strong. “This is how I want our daughters to be,” I said to partner and it is my responsibility as their mother and their most influential voice, to get it right.

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