Archive for the ‘Women’ Category

Would you rather:

A) be sexy

B) breastfeed

There’s a lot of debate on this topic at the moment, but every article I’ve seen seems to miss one very important point: what about option C) both?

There are various articles deconstructing the notion that being sexy is more important than breastfeeding, and what that may say about society. There are also plenty denouncing Kathryn Blundell as irresponsible, dangerous or just plain wrong. There are even a few that get right behind her right to choose what she does and doesn’t do with her body. All of them essentially polarise the choice into sex object or milk cow, but none of them seem to question whether that binary view is really valid. This is not helped by the misinformation that Blundell is spreading:

“I wanted my body back.” – one of the benefits of breastfeeding is that the hormones it releases help to get everything back into shape quicker – internally in terms of the uterus contracting back down and externally in terms of losing baby weight. There’s also the fact that unless you hand over your child to a third party for raising, there’s a very high chance that child will want cuddled, picked up, kissed better and all the rest for years to come, so you don’t really “get your body back” anyway.

“And some wine” – So long as you’re sensible, it is entirely possible to drink while breastfeeding. The amount of alcohol that comes through the milk from the odd glass of wine is very tiny – and given you’ve probably abstained or close through the pregnancy, chances are only the odd glass is needed to get tipsy. If you’re very concerned about alcohol being passed on, you could express and get a feed or two ready before starting on the drink. It doesn’t work for everyone, but then nothing does.

“I also wanted to give my boobs at least a chance to stay on my chest rather than dangling around my stomach” – Statistics show that breastfeeding makes no difference to sagginess or otherwise of breasts. It’s more to do with being pregnant, getting older and genetics.

And then there’s the suggestion that feeding method is the one big thing that determines what life is like for a new mum. Very few new mums really feel sexy, but I doubt the feeding method changes that significantly – to my eye it has more to do with having recently been through a physically, mentally and emotionally life changing event that has morphed their bodies almost beyond recognition. It’s all exacerbated by worry that they’re getting everything wrong, frustration when things aren’t perfect and irritation that everybody in the world seems to have conflicting advice that they offer whether it’s wanted or not. Oh, and lack of sleep. Nobody feels at their best when they’ve not slept properly for weeks. So perhaps it’s the simple fact of being a mum that gets in the way of someone enjoying her life and body, rather than one aspect of how she chooses to do it. If you’re not prepared to let your life change at all, are you sure you should change it in such a dramatic way as to add something that requires so much time and effort?

It looks like you’re going to be going through hell, desperate to get back to some kind of normality and searching for your own identity outside of motherhood anyway. Formula feeding is not a magic bullet to fix that, and breastfeeding may even help – I know it’s added to my confidence as a parent, and confidence is always sexy. There are plenty of good and valid reasons not to breastfeed, but the desire to be a sex kitten is not one of them. Quite simply, the choice doesn’t work that way – or perhaps I’m imagining all the breastfeeding MILFs I’ve met.

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It’s generally accepted that maternity leave is a bad thing for careers – there’s up to a year’s gap in your work history, you’ll have forgotten lots of stuff and failed to keep up with changes. Add in that you’ll have lost touch with all your important contacts, and at the end of it you’ve got a demand on your time and energy that means work will never be able to take first place in your priorities. It looks pretty bad, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t have to be that way.

I found that for the first half of my 9 months away from work, I was pretty much incapable of anything even vaguely like work. “Baby brain” was in full swing – I was so forgetful that leaving the oven on became a regular occurrence – and the birth itself was messy enough that I needed counseling for a minor form of PTSD. In the second half, however, I was craving the kind of mental challenges that work provides.

I was involved in a family-oriented charity project that needed a website, and I saw a possibility: I could write it. I’d have to learn HTML and CSS, but that sounded like just the challenge I was looking for. It was something I could do as and when I had time and felt like it, and I could drop it at a moment’s notice if my baby needed me. So I took to spending nap times immersed in W3Schools tutorials and hacking at code. In a few weeks, I had a working website and a working knowledge of (very) basic web design. At the time, it scratched the itch and it did a good thing. I figured that was it.

Then I went back to work. Over the following year, work changed a lot – my department was shrinking, but another was growing, and I moved across and up. Our online database product was being re-developed, but nobody was updating the help files. Everybody that could do something about it was far too busy doing the developing, or doing their day job, to take on an extra mammoth task. Then I saw a possibility: I could write it. I already knew basic HTML and CSS, and if one of the techies could provide a file with the corporate headers and such already in place, basic is all I’d need. The first revision is now available to individuals across nearly two hundred customers.

Instead of coming back to work out of touch, distracted and unfocused, I came back with new skills and enthusiasm that I would never have had if I’d not gone on maternity leave. My company are benefiting enormously from this, in many ways beyond the up-to-date help files. So it seems maternity leave hasn’t killed my career – it’s advanced it.

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Most teenage girls idolise pop stars, or actresses. They want to be princesses or models. I was not most teenage girls. I dreamed about growing up to be a scientist, like the ones in the John Wyndham books. Then one day a friend told me about Rosalind Franklin, and I was in awe. At the time, all I knew about her was that she had done a significant amount of the research that allowed Watson & Crick to build their DNA model. Since then, I’ve found a few other things out and I like here more and more.

From reading around the subject, I conclude that Rosalind Franklin was a geek. She was almost obsessive about her science, and was astoundingly well informed as well as brilliantly incisive. She would rather spend her time staring at the structure of molecules than worrying about make-up, and was unnervingly forthright in her manner. She held herself, and others, to impeccably high standards. Even while undergoing treatment for the cancer that would prove fatal, she continued to work.

She was by training a chemist, and by trade a biophysicist and x-ray crystallographer.
Her most famous work was on the structure of DNA – research that at the time got very little recognition. She might have shared in the Nobel prize awarded for the discovery, but she died quite young and they are not awarded posthumously.

DNA was only one aspect of her short but prolific career. She investigated the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus, and suggested details of its structure that were later proved to be true. She was instrumental in discovering the structure of the polio virus. Even at the start of her career, Franklin was an expert in the structure and porosity of coal. This might not seem too exciting, but it allowed the development of high-strength carbon fibres, which are now used in everything from vehicles to violin strings. I wonder what she would have made of carbon nanotubes and buckyballs?

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I have never understood why gender matters. To me, it doesn’t. I have never had difficulties in speaking with men as equals, and generally they have responded in kind. I have a number of friends across the transgender spectrum, and have never struggled to accept them for who they are – their gender does not matter to me beyond knowing which pronouns they would prefer me to use. In many ways, I am “gender blind”.

This has all led me to be confused by the apparent necessity for women-oriented Open Source projects and communities, such as Ubuntu Women. I can understand, on an intellectual level, that not all women are as comfortable as I am in a room full of men, but never before did I truly grok the problem.

Lately, I have had something of an epiphany.

Just over two years ago, I became a mum. This threw me into the world of play groups, sharing baby woes and breastfeeding support. This world is inhabited almost entirely by women. It is a world I never knew existed, and one which has given me a totally different perspective on single-gender communities. Suddenly, I was on the other side of the balance – I was, in terms of gender, part of the majority. Seeing my husband struggling with it all has been another eye-opener. He was uncomfortable, and just didn’t quite know how to fit in, because he was different.

Slowly, slowly I have come to realise that, in a way, I was right all along, and gender doesn’t matter. What matters is affinity, and recognising shared experience. It is always difficult to get involved with a new group of people, but instant affinity gives you an “in”, a starting point for them not to be faceless strangers. That affinity could be appreciating the slogan on someone’s T-shirt, noticing that they’ve got an ORG sticker on their laptop, or something they happen to be talking about. That affinity can also come from gender. And now I think I understand.

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Recently it was International Women’s Day. This is a concept I struggle with. I have lately had something of an epiphany, but that is for another post. Right now I want to talk about the competition Ubuntu Women ran. The idea was to gather a repository of inspirational stories about how women got into using Ubuntu, and entries were accepted from across the world. I didn’t quite manage to write the how part, but did accidentally write about why I got into Ubuntu. I didn’t win, and didn’t expect to, but I was both surprised and flattered when Jono Bacon read it out while announcing the winners because it was “so cool”. Both the writing and the response have been part of why I’ve re-started this blog, so it seemed appropriate for me to share my entry here.

Learning To Fly

Some years ago, I used to travel everywhere by bus. The company that ran it was called Microsoft, and I used the Number 3.1. It generally got me where I needed to be, but it took a bit of an odd route to get there, and it would often stop at seemingly random points. If I fancied a change, I could take my walkman, or a book. It wasn’t the most comfortable ride, but it did ok, and I was used to it. After a while, the company decided to upgrade all their busses and change all the routes – and put the fares up. I went onto the Number 95, and everything looked nice and shiny, although I missed my stop a couple of times because I wasn’t used to the route. After a while I realised that although the route didn’t take the same detours, it took new ones, so I didn’t really get where I was going any faster. The busses all seemed to get a bit dingy after a while, too. Still, I had my CD walkman, and it became familiar again.

Eventually, I took the plunge, and got a car. I loved the freedom – I could go where I wanted to go, when I wanted to go. I wasn’t constrained by having to have the right money, and I didn’t have to stop for the sake of everyone else. It was a SuSE, and it was mine and I loved it. Except, any time anything went wrong I had to ask for help. When the radio stopped working, I had to get someone else to fix it. If I couldn’t find a particular stick or button, I had to get someone to show me where it was. It also wouldn’t play any of my old CDs. In short, it was frustrating. I tried a couple of other cars, but they weren’t any better. I took ages getting my Debian to even start, and somehow had a knack for stalling it before I got to the end of the street. Eventually, I gave up and went back to the bus – the XP route now had air conditioning and contoured seats, and I could cope with the delays (and occasional breakdowns) because it did tend to get me there in the end.

Then one day, something quite miraculous happened: someone gave me a pair of wings. In only a couple of lessons, I was flying! I no longer have to wait for the bus, and I don’t need a mechanic to come and rescue me any more. If I want different music, I can just pick up a media player and set it going. If I want to dye my wings a different colour, that’s easy too. I decide which route to take – I’m not even limited by roads any more. The best thing is that flying feels so natural – like walking only better. I call these wings “Ubuntu”.

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In a few days time will be International Women’s Day. Excuse me? What’s that? We need a special day to remind people we exist? Have we not moved on from needing this kind of positive discrimination? So far as I can see, it being International Women’s Day will make no difference. Will I get a card? Will the female driver jokes stop? Will the invisible barriers to women in various careers and hobbies suddenly disappear? Will any of the oppressed women of the world get any increased respect and recognition on or because of this day? No, of course not – for one thing, it’s far too broad a subject to be of much use in specific situations. We have an entirely pointless Special Day just to hang around and devalue all the meaningful Special Days. Well, I can’t say that I feel particularly Special.

Yesterday was St David’s Day. Here is a Special Day with some history and at least some meaning. Hurrah for all the Welsh people celebrating their heritage, and hurrah for the Christians remembering their history.

The Specialness of recent days that means most to me, however, is that on 1st March, it was Self Injury Awareness Day. This day is important because self injury is very misunderstood, and if its existence can help people understand a little better, then it is a good thing. People assume that if you’re going to cut yourself deep enough to bleed, there is something fundamentally wrong with you and you’re going to cut yourself deep enough to die. Over the years I’ve known a few people who have self harmed. I know from having been around them that it is not a mental illness, it is not just teenage angst, it is not a failed suicide attempt and it is not, in and of itself, a problem – it is a coping technique. They don’t do it for kicks and giggles, they do it because they feel driven to do it by some other, underlying issue. Sometimes, the emotional pain inside is easier to deal with if it’s translated into physical pain outside. So if you discover that someone you know has deliberately hurt themselves, don’t act shocked and horrified, don’t run for an ambulance, and don’t assume that they’re going to do any serious damage. Instead, be prepared to listen and try to understand what’s behind it. You might find their reasoning surprisingly rational.

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Dave Neary’s post got me thinking. There’s a huge amount of truth in the open letter he linked to has a lot of truth in it. I’ve been thinking about the people who dominate the LUG meets I’ve been to. All of the people who spring to mind are men. Now, partly, this is due to the simple numbers game – there have been more men than women at every LUG meet I’ve been to. However, I don’t think it’s just that – even when there are women present in reasonable numbers, they generally take a quieter role. A lot of what that letter goes on to say is about formalising processes in meetings that are designed to achieve something. I got to two kinds of LUG meet – serious ones with a proper speaker, and social events.

At the serious ones, the speaker has always been given the respect they deserve and have generally been allowed to conduct the meeting as they see fit, but there have been occasions when one person (invariably male) has decided that they need to say almost as much as the speaker. Sometimes it’s purely because that person is particularly interested, and therefore asks questions and allows the speaker time to answer. Sometimes it seems to be because they like the sound of their own voice. I’m not sure there’s a huge amount I can do to help that directly, given anything I might do is likely to be seen as either me being a whinging woman or being just as bad as the guy trying to take over. Hopefully if people take a look at that letter and think about things they might not be that person in future.

The social events are a different breed of animal. They seem to suffer more from one or two men dominating the discussion – perhaps because they can get away with it as they have no speaker to rein them in. These events I think maybe I can do something about. None of the people who spring to mind that dominate these gatherings (and I think you know who you are) do it on purpose, and I doubt they even realise they’re doing it half the time. They also do want to hear what others have to say, you just have to fight to get their attention first. I know none of them will be at all offended at me saying “Oi! STFU!” and therefore that’s what I’m going to do. So if you’re at a LUG meet and I say that to you, it’s probably because you’re winding me up by talking over people and not letting someone else get a word in edge-ways. Please take it as it’s intended – STFU and let someone else have a turn.

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