How Twitter changed my life

In November 2011 my wife Kerry attended the Stonewall Leadership Programme. A truly life changing course that taught her a huge amount about role models and what it meant to be a gay leader in the workplace. One of the things she brought home was how important it was to her and the others on the course to be in a room with their peers. As a gay woman it’s something she doesn’t have in her day to day job. She has a peer group at work but not a peer group that she can see herself mirrored in or observe obvious role models. Essentially, they are all straight. It was immensely powerful for her to be in a room of people who all had a shared core.

This came at a time when I was at home with our daughter, socialising with a small group of friends, mostly with children. I was missing the daily socialising of like-minded people I had had through work and looking to find something other than mums talking about their children. I wanted more than development milestones and cute stories. I wanted books and education and culture and politics and news. I wanted to find my peer group, my community.

And so I used Twitter. I followed journalists from the Guardian that I no longer managed to buy and read, I looked up authors that I loved and people that I looked up to. I followed their conversations and found more of the same. Suddenly I knew what was happening in the world again. I was following the news. I knew what books were coming out, even if I didn’t manage to read many of them. I found Stella Duffy and Caitlin Moran who re-politicised me. Shelley Harris who was immensely generous with her advice and encouragement to writers and readers. Isabel Costello and Zoe Toft who did all the hard work looking through all the newly published books and presented me with gem after gem on their reviewing sites. I was reading again, I was writing again, I was drawing again. I was thinking and learning and engaging with the world again.

That was when we all found out that Amazon weren’t paying their taxes. I needed to find somewhere new to buy my books, somewhere more ethical and real. I looked up local independent bookshops on Zoe’s site and found Bags of Books. A lovely children’s bookshop in Lewes, not that far up the road. It just so happened that there was an author event with Clara Vulliamy coming up that we could take our daughter to. We did just that and we had a lovely morning listening to stories, chatting with Clara and making tiny mouse houses out of match boxes. Afterwards, what better way to say thank you to Clara than to look her up on twitter? I looked her up that same weekend and we haven’t stopped chatting.

And now I feel like I have really found my peer group, that community of like-minded people that I fit with and can see myself in. I have started Rhino Reads and The Rainbow Library. I have role models and have become a role model to others. I have found friends and inspiration. I have found support and advice. I have found my place. So thank you to Stonewall for showing us the importance of peer groups and role models. Thank you to my lovely friendly twitter community, particularly those mentioned above and the Rainbow Library crew of children’s book authors, illustrators and bloggers. And thank you to my wife for sharing her Stonewall learnings so enthusiastically and honestly.

Making time

After my last rant about the parenting-versus-writing issue I have stepped back from twitter a bit. I love the writing community on twitter but it steals time at an amazing rate. So I’ve dipped in, read a few things, chatted briefly with friends and turned it off again. It’s been quite liberating.

Now I only really read twitter in the evenings and at the weekend. So far this weekend has brought Danuta Kean’s Myslexia article on how women writers find time to work. An Alison Moore quote about writing after her baby was born, “If I didn’t sit down and do it every evening, I was admitting that I would never get round to do it.” And Jon McGregor’s response @jon_mcgregor: Striking that I’ve *never* been asked how I juggle childcare and writing, or how parenthood has affected my work. Are men ever asked this?”

This argument is never going to go away, is it. Surely the question shouldn’t be how do women writers find time to write, but how do writers find time to write. Because everyone is balancing writing with the rest of their life.

I have found that less time means more time. When I had whole days, evenings and weekends with nothing to do, I never got anything done. Now that I have considerably less time, I am forced to prioritise. I am making time for the things I care about. I am reading less, but better. Because I am ‘reading like a writer’ and being more critical, which takes longer but gives me so much more. I am making time to write, managing my time so that I have 8 hours a week to write while Mollie is at nursery. Yes it means I have to be organised and some things will slip but I prioritise the important things and let other things go. And most weeks I realise that Mollie’s nursery teachers won’t care if my tshirt isn’t ironed, the dogs won’t mind if I am writing notes on my phone while they are sniffing about on their walk. It doesn’t matter that my house is not a show home. I have a 3yr old and two dogs. It seems time-wasting to try. It’s much more important that I have quality time to play with Mollie, that she is happy. And the real time saver is stepping away from the Internet. Turning twitter off. Ignoring my emails.

For those 8 hours a week I am disciplined. I sit down and I write. I don’t touch the internet, don’t wander out to buy cake. I drink a lot of coffee and I write. Having the pressure of only 4 hours twice a week makes me work hard. I feel lucky to have those hours to do something that I love and I know what a buzz writing gives me when I get in to it and shut everything else out. If the writing doubt creeps in I think about my wife at work and daughter at nursery and I get on with it. I make a deal with myself. It’s this or the ironing pile.
I love writing. I hate ironing. There is no contest.

I am not a naturally organised person. I haven’t backed up my phone since christmas and the other day I drove for half a mile with it balanced on the roof of the car. But I want to write, so I am writing. I am making the time. I am writing this on my phone at 6:30 in the morning with Mollie cuddled on my lap watching her favourite tv show.

I always remember Jeanette Winterson’s response to the ‘I want to be a writer’ question. She simply says “Then write.” And she is right. If you want to write, you write. You get on with it and make time. Male or female, parent or not. There will always be something to distract you, be it work, relationships, twitter or domestic mess. But if you want it enough you’ll make the time to write.

Love, not less

I am always saddened to hear motherhood referred to as a beautiful club that opens up previously unachievable levels of love.
It is not a contest. It is love. We shouldn’t measure it in these terms. ‘I love more than you love.’ ‘My love means more than your love.’ No. Love is personal and can’t be measured against itself.

So when Twitter started rumbling about the article in the Telegraph where Amanda Craig claims that motherhood gives you ‘a deeper understanding of human nature’, I read the article for myself. And then I got angry. There was the same old claim – ‘No matter what your experience of adult love, there is nothing as strong as the bond between a mother and a child.’ I had an emotional response to the article that was fed by my own experiences and of those of my friends. I had a bit of a rant on twitter, Stella Duffy wrote a very articulate response to the article and I congratulated her and let it go.

Except that I couldn’t. It bothered me for the rest of the day.

When my daughter was born I lost count of the number of people who exclaimed about the immense, overpowering love that I must be feeling. But I didn’t feel love. I felt broken and resentful and sad. And terribly, terribly guilty. And it was made so much worse by the huge expectation that a mother should love her child immeasurably and uncontrollably. It was also made so much better by my hugely supportive wife, and by close friends who were honest and open and admitted that they had felt the same way. It would come. It was okay.

And it did. But it was far from the uncontrollable passion held in such high regard. It was a gradual love, a learning of this new person in my life.

So, according to Craig, am I less of a mother? Less of a woman? Less able to experience human emotion? Less able to write about the human condition? Am I a bad parent because I wrote about needing my own thinking space during the summer holidays? Is my wife less able to understand human emotions because she isn’t the biological mother of our daughter? Or is she one of the chosen ones because her love for our daughter was so immediate and obvious and open?

Of course not. That’s what these horrible articles and this awful debate do. They make you feel less. And I am sick of feeling less.

I gave it some space and then read the article again. I was still angry. And confused. She seemed to be saying that as a mother you won’t be able to write properly because you won’t have the time or the energy, but if you are not a mother you won’t be able to write well enough because you won’t have a deep enough understanding of human emotion. So that leaves… men? Why must women always be categorised and challenged against their parental status? And why so often by other women?

I understand how lucky we are to have our daughter. Not that long ago two women would not have had that choice. A lot of women who want a child are not able to. We are lucky. But equally, I’m still a woman. Still a person. Still an individual. Not any more for being a mother and not any less.

Everyone writes from their experiences to some extent, but to say that you can’t write outside of them, and miss out on something essential if you don’t have children is ridiculous and really very sad. You don’t have to be a mother to experience motherhood. It’s all around us. And being a mother doesn’t have to define you or limit you. Everyone has something that gets in the way of their writing. Children, parents, work, illness. It’s called life. Virginia Wolf is set up as an example of the perfect woman writer. Childless of course. But her own mind got in the way of her writing. There is always something. Will always be something. The key is wanting it enough to find a space to make writing a part of your life. The key is knowing who you are and not allowing others to make you feel less.

So who am I?

Well that is the big question. Who am I, and what am I doing here?

I have never blogged before. I havent seen any relevance in it for me. Why would I write a blog when I have nothing to say, nothing to promote, nothing to achieve. Why would anyone want to read anything I have to say?

I was clearly missing the point.

I now think differently.

I am a woman. I am gay. I am a wife. I am a mum. I was a student. I was a teacher. I am still learning. I am still teaching. All these things seem very relevant now.

I am a mum to a 2 and half yr old and I am beginning to emerge from behind the nappies, the playdough and the children’s tv.

I don’t like what I’m seeing.

Before I had my daughter I was a teaching assistant in a primary school. It wasn’t the most well paid job in the world and there was a fair amount of staff room bitchiness, ineptitude and politics to deal with. But I loved it. I loved the children and seeing them achieve and benefit from a little extra help. Now I look at my friends and old colleagues and I see mass redundancies, teachers working with no assistants or assistance, budget slashing, newly qualified teachers working in cafes because they can’t get a teaching post but have uni debt to pay off, mums living on 40 pounds a week because their DLA has been cut, and endless, endless paperwork. It is clearly hurting them. Ultimately, it is the kids who lose out. Childrens centres and services are being cut, libraries are closing, schools are being forced to increase class sizes and reduce staff. If a child survives all that unscathed they make it to university where the fees are so high they are starting out in life with a debt that will burden them for years.

Do I want to go back into that environment? I don’t think so. My wife says you have to be in it to change it and I think she’s probably right. A thinking point.

When you are a parent you look at the world through your child’s potential future. I do not like what I see. Our government are tearing at society and public services whilst giving hefty tax breaks to huge companies. Rick Santorum and Margaret Court are shouting out to the world that my family is unnatural and poisonous. And yet I do see a lot of hope. The uncut and occupy movements give me hope. Stonewall gives me hope. The mainstream acceptance of gay parents like Charlie Condou gives me hope.

If last year, with its accounts of the Arab spring, the uk uncut movement, its good, bad and ugly has taught me anything, it’s that you are never a lone voice. You are always a part of a community, you share an ideology with others.

I am a woman. I am gay. I am a mum. I was a student. I was a teacher. I have read Jeanette Winterson and Caitlin Moran enough to know that there is something in that.

A good friend of mine once told me that I never finish anything (apart from relationships). She was absolutely right! I am very easily distracted. I start something and whilst working on it I come across something interesting and I follow it, abandoning the original project. I have half an open uni degree in English literature. I got distracted. (And now the course fees have gone up astronomically, I may never complete it.) But I learnt a lot in those three years and it’s all patchwork pieces.
So maybe I’ll come across a great article somewhere and get pulled in another direction, maybe I’ll never write more than this, maybe my embracing of twitter will take over entirely and I’ll never achieve anything other than laughing at pictures of cats.

But I have said this. And maybe, for now, that is enough.

I’m looking forward to finding out.