Like a lady

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I was 11 years old when I first remember being shamed for sitting like this. Not just shamed: told that because of my gender I was not able to sit with my legs open. It’s not ladylike, they said. I remember thinking, lady? I’m barely a girl. I don’t even have boobs yet – that long-coveted proof of womanhood that everyone else got before me and I’m still yet to have 25 years later – and I have to be a lady?

I went to a Catholic school, mixed, and we had a strict uniform. Girls had to wear skirts of at least two inches below the knee in length, box pleat, grey. Shirt tucked in, with all the buttons done up. Tie long enough to reach your waistband, which was never, ever folded over to make your skirt shorter because that could be distracting for the boys.

I was fairly vague in my thinking about gender at that age, other than I knew it felt unfair that I had to wear a skirt when the boys got to wear trousers. I was aware that I shouldn’t accidentally flash my underwear, and didn’t understand why they’d make us wear skirts and also expect us to keep ourselves completely covered up. What if I wanted to do a cartwheel? Why could the boys fool around at breaktime but I had to sit still — and even then, not down on the grass, cos you might risk flashing the boys.

It was during the morning register in my first term of secondary school that my teacher said, ‘good morning Natalie, and please close or cross your legs, ladies do not sit like that’ and then carried on calling other kids’ names while I closed my legs and wished the ground would swallow me up.

Obviously 36 year old Natalie has a lot to say about these things. But I sat on my sofa today like this, legs apart, and felt an old flush of shame rising because I was sitting incorrectly. I almost went to change my position. Instead I observed my feelings, documented it, and I’m writing this.

Like most women I have internalised the sitting positions that are approved for me under the patriarchy. I’m working on breaking out of that. Noone needs to see anyone else’s genitals without consent but also if I wanna sit like this, comfortably, I will. I’m still a lady, and fuck anyone who ever told me otherwise.

Just bread

There is a loaf of bread cooling on my worktop. Not just any bread. Sourdough bread that I baked. I used my own starter, and my trusty, ancient Kitchenaid, and a wonderful recipe from my friend’s dad. I exercised patience and I proofed it (twice!) and I baked it and now it’s here, making the whole flat smell amazing.

This sounds, on the surface, like showing off. Like smug. Like I’ve got my shit together. Like I’ve got time to bake; flour in the cupboard. Like I’m organised and domesticated and thriving in lockdown, all that good Instagram-able bread-related stuff.

What it really means is that I finally found the energy to feed my sourdough starter for the first time in weeks. And I only managed that by promising myself no pressure about baking: just feed the starter. Come on, I said to myself – quite literally, I said this out loud, this is what lockdown has done to me – you can do this one thing. Because I haven’t really felt like doing anything this week.

I have in fact done a lot of things because I have small humans (and myself) to feed and clothe and take care of, and work to do etc. But it’s been an uphill struggle.

I know I’m not alone in this, in feeling the hardness of what should be easy – just hang out with your kids! Enjoy the time together! Make the most of the downtime! As if it’s as simple as that.

I have the sourdough bread recipe pinned with novelty magnets to the side of the fridge and it’s been taunting me every time I’m in the kitchen, which is a lot these days. Look at what you should be doing, it says. Making bread for your family. Wholesome, simple, carefree stuff. Not shouting, not worrying. Not arguing about screentime while spending all your own spare hours with a screen glued to your face, caught in an endless loop of news cycles and memes.

I keep wanting to write something about lockdown, about mental health. But what can I say that hasn’t already been said a thousand times in a million different ways? What can I write that could possibly do justice to what is going on, both globally and locally and publicly and also in the quiet moments when you’re alone – really alone, despite never being actually alone – and the enormity of it all hits you like a tonne of bricks. And it is so, so heavy.

The only thing I seem to be thriving at in lockdown is finding new and inventive ways to criticise myself: everyone else has their shit together, why don’t I?

This post isn’t just about bread (although carbs are the official food group of lockdown). It’s about trauma rearing its ugly head because of, like, everything being upside down; and about how you manage that alongside everything else. It’s about experiencing anxiety manifesting itself in new and unusual ways, and about never quite finding your footing because you’re constantly comparing yourself to everyone else’s highlights reel.

Because one day you might feel great and ‘productive’ and share something nice online about your activities; and the next you are still in your dressing gown at 5pm and the only thing you’ve done all day is slide your thumb across the greasy screen of your phone, lost in that aforementioned loop of news cycles and memes. You scroll until you just can’t take any more, but then you move position so the blood can flow back to your hand, and then you carry on scrolling.

Here’s where I insert the bit about all of this being normal. About doing whatever you need to do to cope, to survive. Here’s where I remind you that it’s ok if thriving isn’t even on your radar.

Here’s where I suggest remembering to drink water. Maybe change your underwear even if you’re still wearing the same clothes. Take whatever baby steps you can toward steering yourself safely through this. For me that was feeding the starter and being very clear that I absolutely didn’t have to do anything else after that. Once that was done, I felt more able to do the other steps that followed. I tidied the kitchen. Made dough. Put my phone down for a few hours and focused on the recipe instead of the world that I cannot change or control.

The human brain is weird (and yours will have its own equally weird weirdnesses), but for me clearing the first hurdle is the hardest part.

So yes, today there’s a sourdough loaf cooling in my kitchen. But it’s not smug. It’s not magic or a sign of worthiness or success. It’s part of a daily choice to choose myself, even when my inner critic loudly tells me I’m not worth choosing.

This bread the result of cumulative baby steps that a week ago I definitely didn’t think I would be able to take, but it’s here because I fed the starter with no pressure. Today I will eat the resulting carb-y goodness. And tomorrow I will try – not even my best, I will just try – and know that whatever I can muster is enough.

Clearly I don’t have all the answers about how you manage your mental health ‘properly’ through all of this. I only know that there is no right or wrong way to do life at the moment. Clean pants are a bonus. Handmade bread is a big bonus. But store-bought is more than fine. Most days no bread is fine, too. There are other carbs just waiting to comfort you.

And. And. Even if I don’t feed the starter or use the sourdough recipe for another week or month, it’ll still be there waiting for me when the worst of this is over. Because one day it will be over, and in the new normal that follows I can only hope we won’t be measuring success in Instagram-able carbs.

(And then when it is all over and the shops reopen, I’ll probably mostly go back to getting my sourdough fix from the clever baker down the road who knows what he’s doing cos he makes bread for a living, and isn’t trying to learn how to make sourdough while working from home and educating his children and living through the biggest crises of a lifetime while being really hard on himself about it. Perhaps that’s a reminder I should add to the recipe on the fridge for the next time I feel the self-criticism creeping in.)

There will be blood

Disclaimer: I’m about to talk about periods. My very original and hilarious title might’ve given it away. If this is not something you wish to read about, look away now. However, if you really don’t wish to read about periods, please take a long hard look in the mirror and blow a raspberry at yourself. Because periods are a fact of life for half of the humans on the planet and I shouldn’t have to disclaimer before talking about them.

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Well, I’m off to a good start. That was going to be a nice disclaimer but then halfway through I realised that actually I’m day 27 and I don’t give a shit about being nice, really. I mean I do because I’m not a total monster, but right now my brain-to-mouth (brain-to-keyboard?) filter and patience are at zero. I wonder how many people know what it means to be on day 27 of an average 28 day cycle – apart from the cliched, volatile and irrational pre-period person that the media portrays?

If I messaged about being day 27 to one of my numerous WhatsApp group chats (oh my god HOW are there so many group chats?!) my friends would mostly know exactly what that means. They’d avoid asking me questions, and if they saw me they’d ply me with chocolate and wrap me in blankets, and leave me alone to hormone in peace for at least two days. (Yes I’m making hormone into a verb. Fight me.)

But how common is this kind of knowledge and support, and why does it matter that we understand our cycle behaviours to be more than just a cliched Jekyll or Hyde-esq caricature? How do we break past that ‘time of the month’ stigma to fully embrace what it means to menstruate?

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that I have been battling with my brain for as long as I’ve been feeling the impact of my reproductive system. I started my period later than the average person, and when I did finally begin they were erratic, irregular, and highly frustrating. The only consistent was the inevitable foul mood which arrived without fail a week before I bled. Not much has changed in twenty years, except for my attitude towards it all, and that is kinda the point of this post.

None of what I experience is unique; far from it. Periods are the perennial butt of jokes. PMS is the butt of even more jokes. Being accused of having your ‘monthly visitor’ if you display so much as a hint of irritation, dominance, or short-tempered-ness is an experience common to all who bleed. That’s what makes it so hard to navigate. It’s entrenched in our society. I’m not saying anything groundbreaking here but it breaks my heart that it even has to be said.

Listen. Please, please listen. There is NO shame in the moods and feelings which accompany each stage of our cycle. But that’s a hard thing to realise and even more difficult to accept. Growing up I was never taught about what it really means to bleed, and more importantly I was never taught that a monthly menstrual cycle is something you need to learn and understand and honour. No-one told me that hormonal changes throughout your cycle do result in different moods and temperaments, but that by no means are my thoughts and feelings and opinions in any way less valid than another human’s just because I produced them while bleeding.

Fuck me, if anything the contributions that a bleeding person makes to the world are probably more valuable because they managed to do them while dealing with said hormones, plus cramps and other symptoms and the inconvenience of the blood itself. And that is no mean feat.

I wish someone had told me this when I first started bleeding. As a teenager I made a weird, sad connection in my brain between the low moods and energy slump I felt pre-bleed and the blood itself, and associated the whole thing with so much negativity. Shame was a big part of my cycle for many years. If something like Red School had existed when I was a teenager; if conversations were more open; if someone thought to explain what was happening… I wouldn’t have spent so many years dreading my period. Ok, I’ll never enjoy the cramps. However, I wouldn’t have felt the pressure to keep functioning ‘as normal’ when my body was clearly telling me everything I needed to know, if only I could be brave enough to listen. But listening isn’t easy when you don’t even know what you’re meant to be listening to.

I first started tracking my cycles after a miscarriage 13 years ago when I realised I knew next to nothing about my reproductive system – thank you, strange Catholic sex education, aka: sex doesn’t exist, you only lose a teaspoon of blood each cycle, and you definitely don’t need to know what a tampon is – and once I started paying attention I learned so much so quickly. As I’ve grown I’ve amassed more knowledge – mostly from the wonderful women I am lucky enough to call friends – and now charting my cycle is something I do without second thought. But there’s a difference between charting and knowing what it means to cycle and bleed.

I’ve spent today (day 27, don’t you dare forget) in a pretty foul, low energy mood. Generally speaking I’m an easily agitated twit, but this close to bleeding is not the time to cross my path. Due to work deadlines I’ve had lots of brain-ing to do and very little energy with which to perform said brain-ing. As a result it’s taken me far longer than usual to complete my to-do list.

Five years ago I didn’t understand the connection between my brain and my uterus and would’ve just chalked today up to another hormone-y, irrational mood. I tracked my cycle but I didn’t really know what that meant, other than when to expect blood. I would’ve felt as though I was failing on a day like today; that the work which seemed easy and manageable two weeks ago (hello, ovulation, you productive little bastard) was actually too much for me, and that this was proof of my ineptitude.

But today, in light of the knowledge shared with me by others, I knew what I was working with. Knowing where I am in my cycle eases my passage through this world and eases the pressure I put on myself to perform. And that’s what makes all the difference – going with the flow (pun unintended but I’m leaving it because I can) rather than against it.

So today I did the things I needed to do, but I did them more slowly.  I listened to my body and I respected its needs. I know I won’t have much energy for the next 24-48 hours, but that doesn’t mean I’m rendered useless. I just need to allocate my resources accordingly.

In a week it won’t be like this. In two weeks I’ll be a hive of productivity. In a month it will be like this again, but knowing that makes it easier to deal with. I am learning to welcome each stage of my cycle as I see the value in the different sides of me it brings to the fore.

There is no shame in my cycle and I feel sad that it took me so long to realise. Each generation teaches what it can to the next, to the best of its abilities. I just wish someone had told me to pay attention to my cycle for more than just needing to carry sanitary products in my bag ‘just in case’. I’m feeling grateful that I get to teach my daughter how important it is to listen to her body and follow its cues, and to never feel ashamed. To understand what it means to own each part of her at each stage of her cycle.

What’s that they say about change starting at home? Well, that feels particularly apt for changing the conversation around periods. I talk to my children about why I take my temperature every morning, about why I exercise less at certain times of the month, what the basket of things is for in the bathroom, why I’m tearful and productive and sensitive at different times, and why I bleed. Normalising this stuff is so important. I never want my daughter to feel she has to hide period products like I did; towels and tampons shamefully stuffed up sleeves on the way to the toilet because GOD FORBID another human knew I was doing the very human activity of bleeding.

Vitally, I also want my son to understand that it is also his job to know about menstruation, and to support the people in his life as they navigate their cycles – and to speak out against those who may stigmatise periods or perpetuate negative stereotypes.

It’s time to end the shame. I don’t know quite how that happens, but I know it has to start somewhere. Talk to your friends. Talk with your children. Share your experiences. Seek out information that helps you make sense of the world as it relates to your uterus. Social media is full of flaws but it can also be a treasure trove of opportunities for connecting with other humans and making sense of the world. I love seeing people talking about their cycles and making it normal, and reclaiming what it means to bleed.

My voice feels tiny but I’m going to add it to the other ones I hear, and hope that one day we will collectively drown out the ‘she must be on her period’ cliches. We will show you what it means to bleed. I am bleeding, hear me roar. Well, maybe technically there’ll be no roaring from me for a few more days. But when I’ve got some more energy I will be roaring again. And that, my friends, is the whole bloody (high five for another unintentional pun) point.

Real writing

There is a thing I should be doing. Probably. There’s always something I ‘should’ be doing.

For example, right now, even though I allocated this morning for writing time, I am worrying about the thing I think I should be doing (which is anything that resembles housework, oh my god how do children make so much mess?!). And because I allocated this morning for writing time, what I think I should be writing is something useful and meaningful, something with purpose. I should write something important. Something that helps the world.

Because if I’m going to make words come from my brain and out of my fingers, I should at least write something that proper writers write, right? A proposal for an article, a properly structured poem, or a story with protagonists and a heroes journey and an ending that makes your heart hurt and your feelings all feel-y. Because ‘real’ writers don’t just write blog posts once every six months, or rambling captions on social media, or scraps of poems in the ‘notes’ bit of their phone, do they? Or do they?

Fuck, it might not be ‘real’, but this writing feels so good. It has no name and it has no form. It’s a flow of words that I know isn’t even properly organised yet, but it is a flow and it is mine. A beautiful, life-affirming flow. A flow that I will edit and re-edit and probably hate for a while before loving again and then posting into the ether never to be read again. But that doesn’t matter. I write like this because I have to, not because I should. I write because feeling the words thread together and sit in beautiful sentences and build satisfying paragraphs feels like coming home. And there is no feeling more real than that.

Sometimes I wonder if maybe I write this way deliberately because the idea of writing something ‘real’ – something structured and identifiable and formal – is too scary. If it’s just a rambling blog post, there’s no real risk, is there? Because by what measure can this be judged? It’s just a blog, right? No-one will even read the fucking thing. And yet. Still I write it. And I think maybe that’s the point.

In my daily life I’m surrounded by writers. Writers with published books, writers who write full-time, writers who get paid to write. Writers who don’t get paid to write but do it anyway. Writers who write to fill long commuter journeys. Writers with lives and jobs and families and struggles and words which flow in spite of it all, transforming their truths and experiences into things they can make sense of and share. And it’s all real writing. All of it. It’s real because they wrote it. Not because they should; but because it mattered to them to write it, so they did.

So why am I so insistent that this way of writing – my writing – isn’t ‘real’? Who says what’s right about writing and what’s not? I mean, to clarify, I’m aware that anyone can write and call themselves a writer, and that doesn’t mean that other people will want to read what they write. We can all think of books that should probably never have been printed. My point here is that the fear of writing something ‘wrong’ shouldn’t stop me from writing whatever I feel I need to write. And feel it I do.

For me writing is about feeling, and it’s a core part of the process of understanding and establishing who I am. Using words to talk about what I feel and experience and think helps me to understand what I’m doing and why I do it. Even if what I’m doing changes from day to day and I don’t always understand it (hello, humans are weird and confusing, and I’m no exception), at least I’m trying.

There is an enormous catharsis for me in writing. A release, almost. I’ve tried doing all of the things which are meant to help one de-stress, decompress, and live life more effectively and less like a simultaneously angry, confused, and startled baby deer. But I don’t get a big release from yoga (although I can’t deny that it does help with my neck pain). Walks in the woods? Mate, glorious. But not writing. The highs after an intense gym session are great, but they aren’t word highs. These words feed my soul like nothing else ever could.

So, I’m writing this. It feels good. It feels fucking good. It’s half-formed right now but even at this stage it feels better than anything else I’ve done today. My shoulders have lowered and my jaw has unclenched. With each sentence I feel a quietening of the chaos in my brain. My words give the chaos a name, they show my darkness to the light, and that is more valuable and more real than anything else I could imagine doing.

If you’ve found the thing that makes you feel alive, you should do it whether it feels ‘real’ or not. It’s real if you make it real. These are my words and I feel them and they are real, and I’m going to keep writing them because I can.

I suppose, then, that this really is what I should be doing after all.

In-between

I haven’t written for a while. I mean, not here. Not like this. I’ve written thousands of words in the past year, most of them in the form of assignments for my MA. But those were words I had to write – words I loved writing, words that gave me life and satisfied my yearning to learn – but they were just words that ticked boxes. Words that do what they are meant to do.

I have composed emails and tweets and customer service replies, and worded witty Facebook comments and Instagram captions. But those were words I wrote for a reason, because I had to, for work, or to satiate my seemingly endless desire to document the minutiae of my life on social media.

This year I’ve written and shared far too many words in WhatsApp. Far, far too many. I’ve definitely written a lot of messages that I didn’t end up sending. But all those words, sent and unsent, were just noise. The kind of beautiful, meaningful, pointless, hilarious, nothing-and-everything noise that helps us make sense of the world and feel real and connected.  Noise that is as important and essential and instinctive as breathing – I hear you and you hear me, and here we are together, laughing and crying and being confused at the absurdity of life through this app in our phones – but still, just noise.

I wrote a blog, briefly. I wrote about mental health and a bit about motherhood. About identity, well, my identity. About healing and journeying and learning, and feeling and growing. But I deleted it. Those words were too raw. Still are.

I have written about positive things in rambling Instagram captions – blue skies, self-care, how loved I am. Long captions. Shorter ones. Quotes I stole from whatever poet I was reading at the time. But those words were too sweet. They make me sound naive, asinine.

I have written words in my journal. Words with a pen, on paper, real and scratchy and blotchy, smudged and coffee-stained and greased with cake crumbs. I have written poetry. I even wrote a short story. And yet these words I discard, discount. They’re not me, because I’m not a writer; they’re just the words I think I should write.

But I’m tired of these words. I’m tired of writing what I think I should write, and I’m tired of ignoring the things that I can’t define. You could tell a story about me based on what I write and you wouldn’t be wrong, not really: academic, professional, friend, poet, over-thinker. 

I look at what I’ve written in the past year and I just see what is missing. The words I haven’t written and the gaps they leave. The in-between words that go with the in-between feelings that don’t fit in neat boxes or labels. Where do I put those words? 

Well, my friends. Here. This is where I put those words.

Welcome to my in-between.