Category Archives: Bitchin’

MeTernity

I have had so many thoughts about this assinine “Meternity” idea-slash-book (go ahead, google it. I’ll wait.) that came out ages and ages ago. I finally have a few minutes (FINALLY) to commit those thoughts to pixels.

Maternity (or parental) leave is not for mothers (or parents). It’s for babies.

It is not an employment benefit for parents, but a social benefit for children. Yes, some employers choose to add benefits for employees who fall under this case as a retention tactic, but they are not universally applied the way that parental leave payments are. This idea is further reinforced by the fact that in much of the developed world, the government is the final payer of parental leave, not the employers (whereas employers DO pay for other benefits).

So you, by virtue of having been born, have already received your entitlement of parental leave.

Of course the application of the benefits hasn’t caught up with modern life, what with non-traditional families and employment, but if you look at every update to the policy, it’s designed to help facilitate a healthy start to life of new citizens (hungry, homeless parents and inconsistent care being very bad for babies).

Yes, becoming a parent is very often a choice, but nobody does because it’s going to give you some time to relax. Seriously? What rock have you been living under that parenthood is portrayed in any way as equivalent to a trip to the goddamn spa? Yes, some people have easy babies and manage to take on all sorts of non-baby projects during the time away from work. But many end up swamped by the needs of their own unique little person.

I personally had one amazing maternity leave. The kind of leave that combines the inspiration of a parent’s newfound role in life with hours to while away during naps and early bedtimes and quiet, self-content playtimes. The kind of leave which creates the time and space to start a new business, or found a movement, or just spend the better part of a year navel-gazing and swanning around going for leisurely walks and experiencing the kind of self-inflicted boredom that sends someone screaming back to work when the leave is finally up (that last one was me, in case you didn’t guess).

Nearly five years later I found myself on maternity leave again. It was decidedly less rosy. This time around I found myself exhausted, with a miserable baby (we would later discover she has some very valid medical reasons for that misery), an older kid who’d turned into a high-needs child, the three of us basically trapped in the house, with the brief exception of the school run, because with their particular challenges, taking those two kids anywhere was a special kind of torture. There was no time to be “reflective.” I was too busy trying to weigh how long I was willing to listen to the screaming that came with putting the baby down, and what the five-year-old might break in a desperate bid for attention in the new-sibling adjustment period, with how badly I wanted to eat food that hadn’t been microwaved yet again.

It was decidedly NOT a break (as evidenced by the fact that this poor blog has lain dormant for so long). And that’s fine. Because the leave is not a benefit for parents. It’s a benefit for babies. Both my kids got the benefit of forming a secure attachment and experiencing consistency of care, all supported by the state. A social program to get those small people off to a good start, so they can hopefully grow up well and contribute to society themselves someday.

I don’t deserve a refund because my second maternity leave didn’t give me an adequate “break.” After all, it wasn’t for me. How would the MeTernity crowd feel if their “year of rejuvenation” left them more exhausted and overwhelmed than when they started?

Much like my annoyance with the Hipster Bone Broth trend (it’s soup stock, not fucking magic), this MeTernity nonsense has nothing to do with babies. You want a sabbatical? Go and take one! Fill your boots! That’s what you call a career-break for grown-ups. “Parental” leave? That one’s actually for the babies.

(Hi, I have missed blogging. No guarantees how long this will last, but for now it’s nice to be back!)

How to be a Business Grownup: Rules for Autoresponders

In all the ways people can be a competent business grownup (h/t Darren), I think the most abused are communication channels. It’s like we haven’t gotten over the fact that there are Magic! Machines! that we communicate through, and we let our amazement at technology take up the parts of our brain we would otherwise use for communication competence and common courtesy.

The latest thorn in my side is the email autoresponder. It used to be that the worst offense was someone forgetting to turn theirs off after a vacation. But now, thanks to Tim Ferris (maybe? he’s at least the earliest adopter/proponent of this inane practice that I’m aware of), every self-important so-and-so who thinks they’re anybody is setting up a pingback that tells you all the reasons you are not important enough for a personal response. At least not right away, probably not ever.

If you’re not entirely sure what I’m talking about, it’s the practice of someone setting up an automated response in their email system, to reply to every incoming message with a litany of excuses and redirections.

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I happened across this piece from Fast Company today, where the featured Very Important Business Grownups share how they use their autoresponders, and what kind of Very Important Business Activities are keeping them from managing their email, as they try to keep it real, man, and not abandon the little people. All while reminding the little people of their Very Importance.

This, business grownups, is not how you ‘set expectations.’

Unless the expectation you are trying to set is that you are so fragile and insecure that you can’t possibly believe the world can function without a response from you – of any kind – for a few minutes/hours/days. Or that the vast majority of the people who email you are so incompetent that they couldn’t possibly get a response/find some information/connect with you or someone else in your company by any other means, ever.

As I mentioned, this has always been a bit of a bugbear. (aside: you can generally tell how much something annoys me by how much my vocabulary resembles an octogenarian curmudgeon) But I find it especially grating after reading this piece about Jeff Bezos and his ‘question mark’ emails. That’s right. The head of Amazon has a very public email address, and encourages customers to bring issues to his attention, without regard to the amount of useless/misdirected/spammy email he must receive.

And I am pretty sure Jeff Bezos doesn’t have an autoresponder telling people where they can find the feedback link on Amazon’s page, or the company directory, or submit speaking requests, or just to apologize for being a Very Important Business Grownup, or Maybe I’m just Playing With My Dog/Kid, So I Might Take a Few Days to Get Back to you, OK?

I bet he does, however, have some executive assistants monitoring his inbox, ensuring the garbage gets deleted, the mis-routed get redirected, and the things Mr. Bezos needs and wants to see get in front of his eyes in a timely manner. And the ignorable, ignored.

And this, Very Important Business People, is how you manage your email. By setting up your systems and resources so that the people you purportedly care about are treated like people.

If everyone who emails you is really having that much trouble figuring out how to connect with you, or who to contact from your company, maybe add some info to your website (or on your card, or some of the other hojillion places you share your email). The fact that you are this much of a keystone to your organisation is worrying. Don’t you have a competent team? A succession plan?

If you want to stop getting meaningless emails from every Tom, Dick, and Harry, maybe stop replying to them all – via autoresponder or actual email response. Every reply you send teaches them that your personal email is a viable source for that type of information.

If you think giving instant responses to email is unrealistic, then stop doing it. Patience is a virtue. And anyone who truly needs an immediate reply will probably figure out how to get it. Without the links or other contact info you’re firing back. Anyone who doesn’t, will somehow get on with their lives, shocking as that may seem.

And since you can’t talk about Fast Company without some reference to the Church of Steve, Jobs was famous for his email responses – their curtness second only to their rarity. I’m pretty sure nobody doubted his Very Importance.

So, the rules:

When is it ok to use an email autoreponder?

When you are away from the office and not replying to any email communication for an extended period (days/weeks/months – whatever is outside normal absence/delay in your world). Note I said ‘any communication’ – you are letting people know you can’t be contacted right now, not announcing your usual delay in responding.

You may even include details for who to contact in your absence, if there is a particular person handling your urgent issues while you’re incommunicado.

But what about (insert any other excuse here)?

No.

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Update: Of course, not long after posting this, I received an email autoresponse. Except, it didn’t instantly fill me with rage. Why not? It was a business email. When someone submits a sales inquiry, it’s definitely good practice to let that person know their question did not disappear into the ether, and set an expectation for when a salesperson will get back to them.

My rant is solely applied to the world of personal emails (or emails sent to a specific person at a business). They are the email equivalent of the twitter auto-DM. Ain’t nobody got time for that.  

Can we talk about the SPIDERS!?

England is a really buggy place.

I was surprised at first, but considering the humidity, it’s not really all that shocking. There’s an amazing assortment of creepy crawlies here, 98.5% of which I am totally OK with.

Except all of them seem to want to be in my house. In everyone’s house, really. And who can blame them? Outside, between September and June, is pretty gross.

Truthfully, I’m not even that fussed about the bugs that make it into the house. Sure, I’d rather not have to include ‘vacuuming cobwebs off every godforsaken corner’ in the list of weekly chores, but it’s not actually that big a deal. Most of what we see day to day are the humble woodlouse, daddy long legs spiders (which hardly count as spiders), a species of mosquito that only bites cows, some misguided wasps (which are actually quite bad this year) and the occasional crane fly when we’ve left the windows open too wide at night.

But there is one thing which I CANNOT ABIDE.

THE AWFUL FUCKING TERROR THAT IS THE EUROPEAN HOUSE SPIDER. 

Do not google that.

I told you so.

Please stop screaming.

Apparently we are now into the time of year where they come inside in search of a mate. We have so far had four come out into the open and make themselves known. Scuttling out from dark corners or underneath cabinets.

And they are HUGE. I had to deal with one the other day that was too big to step on – its legspan was bigger than the width of my perfectly average-sized foot. I ended up throwing a magazine on top of it, and then stepping on *that*. Ugh.

I had started to control the awful panic by convincing myself they were confining themselves to the ground floor, until last night. We were up on the first floor watching TV, minding our own non-spidery business, when I saw  movement out of the corner of my eye.

One of those motherfuckers was making a b-line straight across the living room toward us. I screamed and leaped up onto the couch. Neil screamed (because I screamed), spilled his tea, then valiantly bludgeoned the thing to death with my slipper.

Apparently nowhere is safe.

So if you happen to be driving around Oxford, and catch a glimpse through a window of a terrified-looking woman tromping around indoors in welly boots (very effective spider squishers) with a crazed look in her eye, that’d be me. Please send help. And insecticide.

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Anti-Social

Did you know Anti-social means something entirely different here? I much prefer the UK definition.

Here, anti-social behaviour is something that actively goes against society. Something that disturbs the peace, and negatively affects the neighbourhood. Noise complaints, public drunkenness, vandalism – anything that blights the quality of individual and community life.

I’ve been trying hard to figure out a way to explain one of the key differences between life in the UK and life in North America, and the huge difference in the interpretation of the term ‘anti-social’ pretty much sums it up.

Because in North America, anti-social doesn’t mean ‘against society,’ it means opting out of it.

There isn’t really a great catch-all term in the US or Canada to describe what people here would call anti-social behaviour.

But there are, sadly, so very many ways to talk about opting-out of society.

I’ve just finished reading Emily Matchar’s “Homeward Bound: Why women are embracing the new domesticity,” which manages to put into words everything that was irritating me about parenting in Vancouver, that I couldn’t quite articulate:

  • My intense annoyance at the zealotry around homemade food. Homeschooling. ‘Natural’ products & methods.
  • When I railed about the stupidity in calling parenting ‘a job,’ bothered by the increased trend for women my age, and most importantly, social bracket, to opt out of the workforce.
  • The little pieces of my brain that are still left on the walls from the many times my head exploded after yet another person I assumed was a reasonable human being started seriously questioning vaccinations.
  • The self-important re-labeling of ‘egg-money‘ (which Matchar finally gave me the words for) to ‘side-hustle’ or the cringe-worthy ‘mom-preneurship’; conveniently overlooking the fact that it’s almost always made possible by a professional partner’s ability to support his (almost always ‘his’) family on a single income.

It’s all very academically obvious, when you look at charts like this one from the Pew Institute, that show how different Americans are to Europeans when it comes to how individualistic they are as a nation, and how much of a role they think the social safety net should play.

homeward_bound_rev3And of course, when America sneezes, Canada catches a cold. So many of the same attitudes prevail North of the 49th. Or at least, my experience was that they certainly did in ultra-crunchy Vancouver.  

But I can actually feel the difference between there and here. There is so much less group anxiety.

There are still loads of complaints to be made in the UK about the food security system (horsemeat anyone?), family-friendly workplaces and access to daycare (compared to the rest of Western Europe, that is – it’s still miles ahead of the US, and quite a lot better than Canada), the school system, and the current state of the NHS (which, again, is still nothing short of a miracle compared to the US, and much better than what I experienced in BC).

But that’s the thing. People here do complain. To their friends and neighbours, to their councillors, to their colleagues, to their MPs.

Something needs to be done. Change needs to happen. The English have certainly earned their reputation as a nation of moaners. But they seem to agree that if you’re compelled to spend effort because of a broken system, it would be unthinkable to spend it all on dropping out of the system. It should be fixed, not abandoned.

At least, I hope the attitude that I’ve experienced here so far is the one that prevails. Because the fact that, despite living in our little socialist paradise, the book is resonating here as well, is pretty fucking terrifying.

A funny thing happened on the way from the Farmer’s Market

Over the weekend, Neil and I headed to the Summertown Farmer’s Market. Partly to check out what was on offer, and partly to partake in a (delicious!) pulled pork sandwich from Shredded Meat Co. who are setting up shop there each weekend this summer.

summertown farmers market

The market was lovely, and most businesses along the strip where it’s set up looked like they were doing a roaring trade, encouraging visiting marketgoers to pop through their doors as well.

All except one: The Dew Drop Inn.

And, as we soon discovered, for good reason.

We thought, you know what goes really well with a BBQ sandwich? A cold beer. So over to the pub’s patio we went.

The way the street is set up, there is a big plaza-style pavement, and the pub’s front garden space extends through it, all the way to the street. There’s probably seating for about 50 people out there. You actually need to walk through the garden if you want to cross the pavement frontage. The market was set up down the pavement on both sides.

While there are over a dozen food vendors at the market, many selling takeaway meals, there aren’t any beverage vendors. Anyone who wants to have a market lunch and fancies a drink with it needs to go into one of the grocery stores along the block to pick something up.

Or (as we did) go into the pub and purchase a couple pints.

Except, instead of capitalising on this opportunity to gain some customers and sell some drinks, we got a surly publican chasing us off their entirely deserted patio, for having ‘outside food.’

Fair point, you say, the pub serves food. If you want to use their tables, you should purchase their food. And if that’s the attitude one wants to take take, in a world of black and white, and curmudgeonry, sure. Point made.

But, in a world where pubs are generally struggling, and where most business people (I would think?) would welcome an increase in traffic, and a chance to make a good impression to generate repeat business on non-market days, perhaps some out-of-the-box thinking could help?

Were it my (nearly completely empty, inside and out) pub, I’d see the market as a huge potential. I’ve got the only reasonable seating area for market-goers, and I’m the only one, aside from the grocery stores, selling drinks.

I’d grab some colourful bunting, and section off a few of the tables that market-goers need to walk directly through, to be used for those who purchase food at the market and drinks from my pub. You can’t just park there with a random picnic, but market food +my drinks = ok. The only way market-goers are going to get a table to eat at, is going to be by buying drinks from me. The market vendors and I both win!

But what of the pub food, you ask? Two separate groups of customers. There was not one ounce of crossover between the food available at the market, and the pub’s menu. And I’m pretty confident that someone who’s heading for a farmer’s market lunch isn’t going to be suddenly swayed into having a Sunday roast.

In fact, a really enterprising publican might work with the market organisers to specifically advertise some complimentary snacks to go along with the market food. Maybe a jacket potato to go with the huge Paella that the fishmonger is cooking up? Or a side of chips for with your pulled pork sandwich?

But hey, I suppose that if your idea of a good time in pub ownership is to take a protectionist stance and enjoy chasing ‘rule-breakers’ off your property, that’s your prerogative.

But it’s also mine to decide not to return to the Dew Drop (where I have previously enjoyed both drinks and Sunday lunch), and take my dollars to a pub that’s more interested in generating some goodwill, both in the community, and with its current and potential patrons.

‘Reasons my Son is Crying’ makes me want to cry a little.

Everyone loves the Reasons my Son is Crying tumblr.

Everyone, except me.

I am not usually such a curmudgeon about such things. I am the first to admit that kids, especially kids around 2-years-old (like the one in the tumblr seems to be), are hilarious, illogical, pains in the arse.

My favourite episode of Isaac’s hilariously irrational wailing came when he broke a biscuit in half, had a grand meltdown about the fact that it could not be put back together, then the second he got over that, started up again because his tears and snot had so saturated the damn thing it was disintegrating. Ridiculous.

But people, being two is hard. Kids are just developing a sense of the world around them. It is huge, both in scope and in scale, and they don’t understand the rules of how anything works. The touchstones they arbitrarily choose to rely on for security end up being not so reliable. They also doesn’t understand their own emotions, or why they are suddenly full of rage or fear (and so being afraid of their own crazy brains, without the benefit of much self-awareness), compounding the issue.

And instead of helping his kid navigate two-years-old, this dad is stopping to take a picture, so he can put it up for people to laugh at. And that just doesn’t sit right with me.

Part of this comes with our current experiences with Isaac: the most notable parts of his day, the times he wants to tell us about, are the times he was sad.

It’s not that he’s sad particularly often – it’s actually pretty rare. So rare, in fact, that he will manufacture sadness, just so he has something to talk about. Example: he is perfectly fine, but will suddenly throw himself on the floor, wail for a few minutes, then get up again – totally fine – and proudly declare ‘I was sad on the floor, mummy!’

He re-enacts sad events that happened (the time he fell on his face and cut his lip), and picks up on all the frowning or crying characters in his picture books.

It’s pretty obvious that ‘Sad’ is just the emotion he’s most confident in identifying, so he wants to share his understanding. Sortof like when he figured out colours, and everything was ‘Blue!’ (his first colour) for a while.

Still, just like we made an effort to point out all the not-blue things to expand Isaac’s colour repetoire, we’re now talking more about the other emotions. So while it’s ok to be sad, and natural to cry sometimes, it’s also good to be happy, surprised, excited, nervous, etc.

Because how sad is it, to think about being sad all the time? To have all the attention paid to your most troublesome and traumatic moments?

I know, sometimes there are unintentionally hilarious side effects of kids’ experiences figuring out the world, but just like I wouldn’t want someone to focus on my worst moments, when I’m out of my element and flailing, I don’t think it’s particularly funny, or kind, to do that to someone else. No matter how old or young they may be.

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Cheeseballs making cheese faces

Work-It

Moms of all stripes are up in arms, as usual, this week thanks to a feature article in the Atlantic (and responses to it) trying to tackle the latest chapter in the war-on-moms-slash-work-life-balance-myth.

The latest can of gas being thrown on the fire being the assertion that it’s anti-feminist to be a Stay-at-Home-Mom. The rant in that article has been about as successful in gaining support for working moms as Critical Mass is at gaining the support for cycling (catching more flies with honey, etc.), but at it’s core, I don’t disagree with the statement.

There is a renewed glorification of domestic-excellence-as-job among the upper-class. And it’s providing ammunition for the war on women.

The increased focus on homemaking by wealthy or well-off women is, on the surface, a natural swing of the pendulum. The feminism of the 80’s and 90’s was all about women achieving economic equality at the expense of a balanced family life. A woman could now opt to have a powerful career, but it was at the expense of having a family. Or if she did have a family, she best keep it so far in the background to her work life, you would struggle to know it existed if you only knew her professionally.

On the surface it seems that the trend to embrace homemaking is a boon for feminism. Educated, powerful, successful women are choosing to attend university in record numbers, charging into male-dominated fields, proving they are good enough and smart enough. And now, these women we once expected to lead the charge into corporate life are making the choice to stay home. To embrace domesticity and revel in giving motherhood and their children undivided attention. To purposefully, consciously, independently assert their femininity by diving headfirst into the job of motherhood.

Great.

Now for how many women is that actually a choice? How many women would rather be working, but can’t afford childcare? Would like to give an employer their all for three, rather than five, days a week, except part-time work isn’t an option. How many women would rather be at home with their children, but must go earn a living outside the house for the financial sake of her family?

We do each and every one of these women who DON’T get to make the choice about whether to be a working mother or not an immense disservice every time we talk about motherhood as a job.

In her cover piece for the Atlantic, Anne-Marie Slaughter makes an interesting comparison between mothering and training for a marathon. An employee who spends a hefty amount of his or her time outside work training for a marathon may be seen as a great planner, dedicated, focused. Another employee who also gets up routinely at 4:00am and develops plans, routines and strategies to take care of family maintenance isn’t likely to be met with the same enthusiasm.

Along similar lines, a woman who prepares for a sabbatical year traveling, exploring, learning is seen as a forward-thinker, someone who will return bringing new ideas, perspectives, renewed energy back to her job. One who may go through the same preparation in order to take a year off from the workforce to focus on her family is often seen by the world of work as a slacker, opting out, wasting her time.

Could part of the problem be the insistence to call motherhood a job, when we know it isn’t?

An employee who has another job is often seen as one who isn’t really committed to their employer, who may have one foot out the door. A potential liability.

Conversely, an employee who has projects, passions, commitments outside work is seen as someone who is tenacious and well-rounded. A real asset.

When we insist on calling stay-at-home parenthood a “job” what we’re really doing is encouraging a system where, when a mother demands a job that fits in with her family life, society can respond with “why? you already have one.” When we fall prey to those stupid “what’s a housewife worth” surveys, trying to put economic value on homemaking when we know nobody earns money to do these things for their own family, we reinforce the notion that work done for one’s own family is worthless.

At its core, creating and nurturing future humans is nothing more than life. Literally, it’s the continuation of the species. And it takes work. Important, challenging, exhausting and rewarding work. But I wish we could all stop doing women everyone such a huge disservice by lying to ourselves and each other by calling it a Job.