Every woman I’ve ever met has her own Harvey Weinstein(s) and we know that the only regret he has is that someone told and he got caught. I view his going to rehab as an act of aggression towards all the women he abused, as though he couldn’t help himself. As though this is about sex and not about power. Of course, he is only one piece of filth that has floated to the surface. Now the pond has been stirred, he won’t be the last.
I remember when I sat in women’s groups in the 1980’s, someone would inevitably bring up the subject of sexual abuse. There would be a wave of upset and lowered eyes. I wondered, in my naivete, if the degree of upset was corelated with the ‘degree’ of abuse. I didn’t know, but what I did know was that when the question was asked “how many women here have suffered abuse at the hands of men” there was always 90%-100% of raised hands.
I was 20 years old and had moved to the city from a country town and had arrived at the women’s groups by accident rather than by design. I was so ignorant that I once declared that I didn’t need to be a feminist because all the men I knew treated me with respect. The friend who had brought me along was mortified.
Hailing from a family of 5 girls and a matriarchal mother, I observed that men were treated simultaneously as kings and as nuisances. It was an amazing balance that was perpetrated non-verbally. The men were sent to the sitting room with the newspaper and the Saturday sport on tv, so that the women could hang out in the kitchen. Occasional cups of tea, sandwiches and freshly baked cakes would be delivered to the captive males on their comfortable thrones. My father was a reserved, catholic man, who was embarrassed if we saw him in his pyjamas. Whilst my mother and her sisters, and later her daughters, spent that time in the kitchen, cackling at raucous jokes about men and sex. They were very funny! But as a child I was confused. Men were to be pacified, like children, given toys and told to play in the other room. But they were ultimately the ones who were in charge, served by their women. Where did the power lie?
I guess it’s inevitable that in a family of girls, physical beauty becomes a value. I must emphasise that academic success was equally high on the list of values! But, in my experience there was the underlying message that beauty could bring danger in the form of unwanted attention from men. “They all only want the one thing.” I don’t think they knew then that that “one thing” wasn’t actually sex but was purely power.
My first memory of inappropriate attention was when I was forced to kiss a male cousin who had cornered me in the hallway. The adults didn’t save me, they laughed at how cute it was, ignored my crying and told me to give him a little kiss. I was about 4 years old and that was the message I was given. I must kiss him to get approval and no one would protect me. Take a moment to think of the message HE was given.
It seems that in every neighbourhood there were men who were to be avoided. They were ordinary men, our neighbourhood’s husbands and fathers. They weren’t like my aunt’s flasher. ( My aunt was famous for telling a flasher to “put that dirty thing away”). I didn’t understand why the women in the neighbourhood were to be careful around them but I was warned not to be alone with them. It must never be spoken about. A secret. Their wives may have known. We don’t know.
When I was 12, my friend’s brother brought me into a room and exposed himself to me. I returned to the sitting room and sat watching tv with his family.
Because I was pretty and if I told them, they’d blame me. Maybe I’d led him on.
Soon after that I had my first kiss. A boy I fancied sat on me and said, “I could rape you now”. I replied, “I’d scream”. He laughed “Not if I was kissing you. You couldn’t”. At the time it seemed romantic.
As a teenager, I had no idea how to deal with unwanted advances.
It was flattering to be desired. It was as easy to give them what they wanted. They only wanted one thing. And I had it. Having sex with men was how to get them to like you, to show them how sophisticated you were. I wasn’t a child, I was a woman. I could get approval.
Later in my teenage years, I devised a method whereby if a man was harassing me I would ‘accidentally’ burn him with a cigarette. I am frightened now that I felt that was a valid and safe action to take. Unfortunately, the instances I’ve given here are a drop in the ocean and this was me taking back what power I could.
When I was 16, a friend’s father harassed me so much that I had sex with him. He continued to habitually harass me when I stayed with them. I couldn’t stop staying there or people would want to know why and I couldn’t tell. I eventually threatened to tell my friend and he stopped.
But I never told.
It was my fault and it wasn’t “really abuse”. It wasn’t really rape. I must have wanted it or I would have stopped him earlier.
Recently, 50 years later, I got drunk and told his sister which I deeply regret. I’m still 16 and terrified she’ll feel she must tell. He’s her brother and I want to protect her and my friend and, of course, I’m still protecting him.
I don’t think I’m unusual when I say that I believed that my abusewasn’t as serious as the other women in those women’s groups in the 1980s. Their abuse was terrible, awful, unforgivable. Me? I had just ended up having sex with my friend’s father. We were only at the beginning of understanding the nature of rape.
But we understand more now. Don’t we? We instil feminist principals in our daughters. Don’t we? We raise sons who understand feminism, whilst maintaining confidence in their masculinity. Don’t we? We raise daughters who see value in themselves beyond their physical beauty. Don’t we? We raise sons, who don’t need power over women to feel themselves empowered. Don’t we? We raise daughters who are empowered. Don’t we?
At 56 I’m only now learning that in those women’s groups in the 1980’s my eyes should have been raised and my hand should have been waving high in the air.
Dancing the Deep Song
Whales dance in the light of the moon while
Small salty people clean footsteps
From the sand.
They remember the brightness
And the warmth
They have lost.
While Bubbles of sunlight
floated unseen at
The edges of their small shell houses.
They do not forget the
Rise and fall of promises
Made and broken.
But still they
Dance to the tune of the foam
In the dark salt wind.
They will always be
Dancing the deep songs
In the light of the moon
Where's my Poetic Licence
My thoughts are in verse with
I am speaking in sonnets with
an odd rhyming couplet
Waking at night
I scrabble to
scribble my dreams
forgotten by morning
I am the classic ear-wigger
The shy drabble maker
The one who jots thoughts
In my busy new notebook
When will I be a writer
Where’s the line I must cross
How many classes
how many courses
How many readings
how many stories
Until I can finally say
I am a writer!
Carefully Counting out her change
In dirty 10 cent pieces
Slán go foill! says she
pushing the bottle deep
in her ragged red rucksack
Head down she tries to avoid
The two young bucks with clipboards
Smiling at her through rows of
Orthodontically sculpted teeth
They beseech her to help
To save the whales and elephants and
To tackle the effects of climate change
No change in the climate here she says
It rains all year
The Christians are out,
With rosaries waving from under
Their shiny golf umbrellas
She wonders do they see him
And his blanket and dirty wet cardboard
Slumped in the doorway beside them
Sliding along the shiny wet cobbles
That reflect the street’s` colours
of blue, yellow and grey
She marvels at the miracle
Of how your woman
Stays upright when she kicks out her heels
In a wild slip jig
But The grand soft rain
Won’t stop her dancing while
The narrow street is shrinking
With fiddles and banjos and drums
And the dripping people who stop to listen to
the lads with the dreadlocks
And grand woolly jumpers
I once saw a dog on a donkey’s back
And girls with ten hula hoops
Well, says she,
isn’t it fine
What can happen on a small
Narrow street in the rain
Sitting room of 3rd floor apartment overlooking the city. Jo is sitting at her desk, working on her laptop and EM is standing by the window, staring out into the night.
Em, what are you doing? You’ve been standing there not saying anything for the past 20 minutes?
Do you not hear them? The helicopters? Jesus I hate that sound, phut phut phut, big ugly flying yokes, like some harbingers of doom.
JO: (trying to laugh)
They always remind me of the opening scenes of MASH. Em, it’s probably the medical one going to the hospital.
EM: (looking at her)
No, no they’re Search& Rescue alright, I can see the lights strobing across the water. There’s at least 2 of them.
Come away from the window Em, you don’t know that it’s…..you know….again.
EM: (teary eyed is drawing pictures of drowning people on the steamed-up window)
I do know Jo and so do you. Sure, what else could it be?
C’mon Em, you know those fucking drawings will show up every time the windows are steamy. We’ll never get rid of them. Look, I’ll go on FB and see if anyone has posted anything about a search.
EM: (still absentmindedly doodling on the window, drawing figures with speech bubbles calling for help)
JO: looking at her laptop
JO’s mobile rings and she answers
Hi Izzy, Yea we see them, do you know anything? No neither do we.
Jo leaves the room
She’s not great, to be honest, won’t come away for the window. She’s kind of gone into a daze. I know. Sure it’s barely a year since Sean and she hasn’t remoely come to terms with that. Do you know Iz there are times when I get so furious with him, even though I know I shouldn’t. I wouldn’t say this to anyone else, but he fucking knew it’d be her that would come home and find him. Shit I’m getting freaked out myself now and I need to stay calm. Listen will you phone around and call me back if there’s any news. Thanks love.
Jo goes back into the room. Em is still at the window.
I wonder how long they’ll stay searching
Izzy’s going to phone around and let us know if there’s any news.
It feels like when little Ali went into the river, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it Jo.
Yes! It feels exactly like when little Ali killed herself.
EM: (crying quietly)
First little Ali, then Sean. I don’t think I can take another one. It’s a horrible thing to say but I hope whoever they’re searching for isn’t another one of ours.
Well at least we all always have each other, no matter how much we bitch. I remember Ali’s family and the Guards couldn’t believe how so many of us went searching the coast every day for the whole 3 weeks she was missing and when Moira found her, how we were like a tower of gay strength holding each other. I’ll never forget it, in the midst of the horror how proud of our little community I felt.
Poor little Ali, sure we never knew….
They look at Jo’s ringing phone
Hi Iz, well? Rachel and Steve? What did the text say?
Bursts into tears, shaking her head at EM
Sophie, it’s Sophie
But it can’t be her. There’s a mistake. Weren’t we only out with her last night. It was last night, wasn’t it? She was in grand form, a bit pissed but that’s only to be expected what with that bitch Sara cheating on her, but she was singing and everything. I don’t believe it’s her.
Yea, do you remember what she was singing though?
I do but it’s her favourite song J, she always sings it. That doesn’t mean anything.
Yea but think of the words Em,
JO sings through tears
“Looking back on the memory of
the dance we shared beneath the stars above
For a moment, all the world was right
How could I have known you’d ever say goodbye”
JO breaks down and Em recites the remainder of the lyrics
“And now I’m glad that I didn’t know
the way it all would end, the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance
I could have missed the pain
But I’d have had to miss the dance”
Fucking Garth Fucking Brooks. How could she J? How could she do this?
Was Izzy absolutely sure it was her? Maybe there’s a mistake. Should we try phoning her?
It’s her love. She sent texts to Rachel and Steve saying she loved them and she was sorry and by the time they’d called the Guards and run down to the bridge, she was gone. A pile of cigarette butts, empty whiskey bottle and her cross and chain left on a ledge.
Come on Em, get your coat, everyone is meeting in the pub. We have to start organising the search.
They finally hold each other in desperate silence before they leave.
“I’m a bad mother” “I’ll never get this right” “He just won’t stop crying for me” “He prefers you” “Is it something I did?” “I don’t know what to do with him” “I’ll hurt him”I don’t know if mother shaming has always existed in some form but what I am sure of is that social media has reinforced the concept of mother’s guilt and shame.
We are constantly presented with unrealistic images of perfect babies and perfect mothers and somewhere in ourselves, even when we know we are being manipulated, we believe that we should strive for that perfection.
Mothering has almost become an extreme sport and a competitive one at that. In a baby’s first days, weeks and months it’s mother (I am speaking only about mothers in this post) finds herself in a foreign country. Even when it’s not a first baby she can struggle as both circumstances and the baby’s personality may differ. In this foreign country she is sleep deprived, she may or may not get an opportunity to eat nutritional food, her body is at the baby’s beck and call (if breastfeeding), she may be in pain from stitches and be unable to sit down, or get dressed or even bend down to tie her own shoes!
And the most challenging aspect of being in this foreign country is for a mother to find her way, whilst attempting to take some care of herself.
There is a myriad of obstacles; physical, mental and emotional but one of the biggest obstacles is that of mother shaming.
New mothers are vulnerable and in seeking perfection they may stumble on the path of shame. It is too easy to believe that you’re not doing a good job, when you haven’t slept in days. It’s easy to believe that you’re a bad mother because you’re not breastfeeding or that you are breastfeeding but it’s a struggle. Is it wrong that your baby sleeps in bed with you? or that your babydoesn’t sleep in bed with you?
I could go on and on because there is absolutely no shortage of areas that mothers can feel inadequate. Guilt about things we do or don’t do as mothers is growing as societal expectations grow.
Post-natal depression has become an issue that people are now willing to discuss, but I think that as with any mental ill-health, there is still shame involved in admission. The women who have been brave enough to bring the subject to the fore have given a great gift to new mothers.
Feelings of failure and shame brought about by messages we have received or are receiving about ourselves and our mothering are insidious and unhealthy. Whenever we can, we must attempt to change the narrative of the messages we send ourselves so that we can replace shame with pride. What an incredible gift to present to yourself and your baby!
Shame is a multi-generational, familial and culturally learned concept and experience. It is felt as intolerance and often verges into hatred, typically experienced as self-hatred. Children learn to be ashamed by experiencing ideas and language of hate and shame from family members and further from society. When shame is used as negative parenting or teaching tool, children are not taught the intrinsic difference between who they are and what they do. They then experience themselves as unlovable.
Brene Brown Ph.D * defines shame as " the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection. Brene Brown Ph.D
There is much written about effective communication and the effects of healthy versus unhealthy communication within families. From the moment, a baby is held and with every word that the parents speak they are delivering messages that the tiny humans absorb. Of course, it’s not just words at that stage because babies don’t understand words. But they understand tone of voice and tactile response. They understand eye contact, smiles and grimaces. Babies learn quickly. Within the larger family group, if they have contact with grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles etc. they will absorb and process more and more messages. The baby, transforming into toddler and then small child will have learned to read nonverbal signals and emotions without any verbal input. Then verbal interaction is experienced and the child is sent out into the world and specifically into school.
In this post, I will focus on just one element of what is communicated to us throughout our childhood and influences and is often compounded by our behaviour as adults. That is shame. Shame is an insidious interloper that lies hidden within our psyche and launches its attack, often unexpectedly and destructively.
. Here are a few obvious examples of what we can be taught to be ashamed of being:
A ‘certain type’ of /girl woman: TOO pretty/notpretty, fat/ thin, submissive/ aggressive, clever/dumb, frigid/slut
A ‘certain type’ of boy/man: TOO handsome/ugly, strong/weak, aggressive/thug, many/weak, new man/chauvanist
Gay: TOO: flamboyant/straight acting, butch/girly, effeminate/aggressive, 'in your face'/not out, camp/embarrassed
Transgender:TOO in your face/hidden, militant/pretending, confused/confusing
Black: TOO Black/not black enough, beautiful/ugly, militant/submissive,
White: TOO white/not white enough, complacent/aware, educated/uneducated, privileged/underprivileged
Religious: TOO bigotted/unrealistic, prozletiser/quietly spiritual, powerhungry/silent
Atheist: TOO uneducated//smug, inactive/too active, vocal/self contained
Left wing: TOO, uneducated/entrenched, liberal/not liberal enough, working class/middle class, social conscience/leftly
Right wing: TOO priveleged/underpriveleged, self-serving
Mentally unhealthy: TOO mad/not mad enough, attention seeking/reluctant to get help
Physically unhealthy: TOO needy,
Etc. Etc. Etc. Unfortunately, the areas are limitless and I've only touched the surface.
“When our instinctual life is shamed, the natural core of our life is bound up. It’s like an acorn going through excruciating agony for becoming an oak, or a flower feeling ashamed for blossoming.”
― John Bradshaw,
As human beings, communicating with other human beings, we owe it to ourselves and others to understand our own shame and the ways in which it has been communicated to us and how we have both internalised and externalised such toxicity. Allowing ourselves to feel our own shame, to be unafraid and to understand the ways we transfer our beliefs and our, often distorted truths is a wonderful gift to ourselves and to our children.
As we are brought closer to an understanding of our authentic selves, we then allow our children to grow into the oaks and flowers they were destined to become.
I remember when the blackcurrants were ripe for picking, they glowed in their skin of purple black. When the sun shone, the Meitheal began. Meitheal is an Irish word referring to the practice of neighbours assisting each other to harvest their crops. The majority of our neighbours had generous gardens and among other things, they grew berries, blackcurrants, redberries, strawberries, raspberries and hairy green gooseberries. Our Meitheal was a gathering of women and children who descended systematically, like locusts on each garden to pick the fruits, starting with the blackcurrants. Every generation was represented and this practice, in itself, represented an incredible sense of community.
We’d sit on upturned buckets, if we were lucky! More often than not the adults, who hadn’t brought their own little stool, had the buckets reserved so we were on the ground and worked our way around the bushes with basin in hand. When buckets and basins were full they were weighed. There was an art to it, no amateur offerings here. The currants must be picked without bruising and without stalks.
The first taste of the currants was a ‘stand still and savour’ experience. Firstly there was the sniffing of the leaves-I loved that then and I still do now. I’d run my hands through the branches, and the waft from the leaves smelt of a sweet dampness and ancient memories. Then came the crunchy little currant exploding in my mouth. I would taste the shininess of the skin and the jelly like centre, Immersing myself in those sensory pleasures; the colour, the smell and the taste would fill me with a feeling of wholesomeness.
There was one little red currant bush in the garden and I really favoured it. I don’t know if it was the light filled little red bubble or the sweetness. I suspect it was because it was the one that stood alone and was different.
Our neighbours and friends worked hard and amidst laughter, tea and the swapping of recipes they got the job done and were prepared for the next garden on the following day.
At that stage the kids were tired and the excitement had worn off so currants were used as missiles, and squished in faces, leaving a gooey purple-green gunk dripping from cheeks and chins. Time to get us rounded up and brought home.
But it didn’t end there! There followed the blackcurrant cordial and the jam! My mouth waters when I think about the cordial my mother used to make as a reward for our work. Purple moustaches were evidence of our impatience for the mixture to cool in the fridge.
The smell in the kitchen of blackcurrants, being stirred by the long, purple wooden spoon as they bubbled in the giant, cauldron-like saucepan, cast spells of nostalgia, never to be surrendered.
Of course every family that had been picking were now jam making so the heady mixture of berries and sugar wafted like a sweet purple cloud above our houses. It was glorious.
I was especially fascinated by the intricacies of bottling. The warm, recycled jam jars,the little wax circles, plastic covers and elastic bands seemed somehow exotic and appealed to my creative side.
Finally, the doorstep of homemade soda bread and butter lathered with the warm jam is indelibly etched deep in my memory bank. Oh what I would give for just one slice!