IVF & THE IRAQI AMBASSADOR: Tales of Infertility

THE SET UP

Where do I start? For anyone who’s gone through it, you understand.  It’s tough. Insane. It’s a secret sisterhood.  The injections, the drugs, the blood tests, the weight gain, the crazy hormones.  We nod in a shared acknowledgment when we meet another who’s gone through the private, very painful, hell.  Some need sensitivity to cope, others find humour helps, and often we’ll seek out new alternative avenues (homeopathy, religion, acupuncture, yams) to help reduce the stress and find solace on the path to fertility.

For those lucky women who haven’t endured this unexpected twist of fate (I have friends who get pregnant when their husband just looks at them. Grrr.), it’s quite hard to explain just how mentally, physically and emotionally exhausting  IVF is for women (and by extension, their partners).  It can break you.  Or the marriage. And unfortunately, that sisterhood which bonds us ends up dividing us at the end of this challenge — those who successfully deliver a newborn baby, and those who don’t.

I got married “late” by society standards. I loved my job at ABCNews/Nightline and was in no hurry to do the marriage and family thing. I went off the pill just before we married at 36 years old. After 6 months and a doctor’s check up, I was told I had “hypothyroidism”- a condition which 30% of all women in their 30s have but most don’t know it.  It contributes to a higher rate of miscarriages, so I started on levothyroxin (synthroid in the US) and we kept going.

By 37, after both my husband and I had a comprehensive battery of tests,  it was determined that “on paper” I should be getting pregnant. Healthy, fit – perhaps somewhat stressed – but no alarm bells.  My FSH levels (follicle stimulating hormones) were good, as were my levels of oestrogen and progesterone.  We did IUI twice and nothing, so my doctor suggested we jump right to IVF as time was not on my side.

We went to a doctor said to be “the best” on the cover of Washingtonian magazine. A tall, handsome Chinese man with a calm and unpatronising demeanour, he explained to us the statistics that all IVF doctors look at. Charts and graphs showing your age going up and the viability of your eggs heading south — a huge drop off after 35 yrs old.

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I felt a bit foolish – with all the news stories I had covered – knowing so little about something so fundamental. I didn’t know that even as a healthy 20-something, you have a one in four chance of getting pregnant at each try. So by their rule of thumb, if you do 4 rounds of IVF, you should get pregnant (25% chance each time).  I started on a round of injections, drugs and doctor’s visits for blood tests.

In my head, I was “fixing” the problem. That’s the kind of person I am. A doer. Proactive. Don’t sit around and complain or worry, just get up and do something. But psychologically I had taken a blow. I could not comprehend that, from an evolutionary perspective, the one thing women are put on this earth to do, I couldn’t do. My animal instinct kicked in massively and I was devastated that I was somehow less – female – than everyone else. The insecurity planted firmly in my gut. I doubted my femininity. I wondered whether God or someone was telling me I couldn’t be a mother.  But I pushed the doubts away. I can do this! One round and we’ll be fine, I told myself.

THE FIRST TRY (or WHAT JUST HAPPENED??)

I learned how to fill needles from the vials they gave us, do that doctor thing you see in movies and tap them to get all the air holes out, and then stick the needle sub-cutaneously (under the skin) into my lower belly or the upper bottom, switching locations to avoid bruising.  The doctor told me the hormones I was injecting (to stimulate egg production) would make me bloated and perhaps irritable or weepy. I was determined not to let this affect my work or my routines so I would slip into the bathrooms at work to shoot myself up, so to speak.

At the appropriate time we went into the hospital for the operation (an anaesthetist puts you under for about 45 minutes), and later they told me I had produced 12 eggs.  Yay! They fertilised them and then watched them as they started to grow.  We went back a few days later to find 6-8 eggs looked very good but they decided to implant only the 2 best. Our hubris and optimism (stupidity?) was fatal in the end, as when they asked us if we wanted to freeze the other eggs we said no.

In the operating room for implantation, our lovely doctor had created a ‘safe space’ before there was such a word. Everyone, including my husband, was wearing surgical scrubs and masks to ensure we were in a germ-free environment. Surrounded by nurses soothingly holding my hand and stroking my forehead, we listened to lovely strains of Mozart piped in to overhead speakers.

At one end of the room the doctor opened a little sliding window and the embryologist handed off the two fertilised eggs that are attached to the end of a tiny catheter that is like a wet spaghetti noodle.  The doctor is then supposed to put this into the uterus and the eggs should attach to the uterus wall and start to grow.

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However, somewhere along the way in this process I suddenly realised the nurses had stopped cooing, they weren’t rubbing my hand nor even making eye contact. They’d moved away and were busying themselves in a nervous way.  My husband looked lost and we could feel the tension in the room.  Our doctor stood up stiffly, declaring resolutely “We’ve got a problem. I’ve dropped the eggs.”

I seriously could not comprehend what had just happened. I got up on my elbows (I was lying on my back with legs askew), looked over the edge of the operating table and said “Well, where are they? Can’t you just pick them up?” We were dumbfounded.  The embryologist had shut the window quickly — it was like they had just exposed us to a lethal disease and wanted to get as far away as possible. They quickly wheeled me out and into the ‘recovery room’ where we waited for our doctor. He came in, visibly upset, pulled up a chair, grabbed a ballpoint pen, and without anything better to write on, he started furiously stabbing at his leg, scribbling drawings and diagrams on his scrubs, explaining that as the wet-noodle catheter went up my cervix, it got caught on a ridge in my cervix and the eggs dropped off.

I still didn’t fully understand. Won’t they just swim up the rest of the way? Can’t I do a head-stand and they will drop into my uterus? Couldn’t they just hang out and grow there? He said sperm, on their own, swim. But eggs don’t. They just drop. And they won’t grow in the cervix.  He said in the thousands of times he had done this operation, and he stressed thousands, this had never, ever happened. He was horrified. He immediately said we can put in the frozen eggs to which we had to explain we told the embryologist to dispose of the extras. D’oh! He then said he’d pay for the next round. And use a hard-noodle catheter — less comfortable, but more sturdy to get over my nuisance of a cervix-ridge. As miserable as he was, I had lots of faith in him, and truth be told, when I thought about it later, he didn’t have to tell us he had ‘dropped’ the eggs. He could have “placed” them inside, and we would have been none the wiser.

But on the way home, what should have been a celebration, was a numb, silent drive where we sat there wondering what had just happened. All the build up over the weeks, the nerves, the emotions, the energy and excitement focused on this moment, sure that all would go fine, faded away and then we left with…nothing.  It was very sobering, and the beginning of a long and crazy path.

IVF & THE IRAQI AMBASSADOR

After that first disastrous IVF, the rest of them became a blur.

For context, this was 2001-2003, right after 9/11 and we were about to go to war with Iraq. We were working long, stressful days at Nightline after that fateful September morning. Our office was assigning teams to be deployed to Kuwait and the Iraqi border in anticipation of war. We had to fill out paperwork with our blood type, just in case. My doctor said “Is there any way you could take a break from work? There is so much we scientists don’t know, but we do know that stress seems to play a big factor in getting pregnant.” I told him if he wanted to keep getting paid, I needed to keep my job. At the time, IVF was about $15,000-$20,000 a pop and the health policies/laws usually allowed for only 1 or 2 to be partially covered up to a certain age (which I believe was 40 at the time).  After that, you were on your own.

On a trip up to NYC with my boss (male) on the Delta Shuttle from Washington, I remember being horrified as I realised I had my needles and vials in my backpack.  I got to the counter early and explained to the agent that we had to go up to New York to talk with the Iraqi Ambassador at the Consulate and I’m in the middle of my cycle and I have to take my medicines, but I can’t let my Executive Producer see the needles, I’m just a Producer, it’d be so embarrassing and I can’t check my backpack, that would slow us down and I’d look like an fool.  I was lucky the agent believed me. Plus this was still fairly recent post 9/11, and the strict rules were you couldn’t undo your seatbelt until 15 minutes after take off or 15 minutes before landing, and since the DC-NYC flight was half-hour, no one was moving.

Once in New York, we met with the Iraqis as they were, literally, packing up the Consulate. The US had ordered them to leave the country in a few days, ahead of the war that was imminent. I had to remember to not shake anyone’s hands during our introductions – their protocol dictates no physical contact with strange women – and I wore appropriate clothes, covering my knees, shoulders and hair, out of respect.

Amidst cardboard boxes, packing tape, and bubble wrap we sat in a beautiful room carpeted with intricate middle eastern rugs and spoke to the Ambassador about the ties we hoped to keep once war broke out.  We stated our case for keeping our lines of communication open. His press people and our sources would be in demand.  As we drank our tea out of a beautiful silver service, I interrupted: Ah, excuse me? Mr. Ambassador? Could you show me to the ladies room please?

One thing you might have guessed with IVF cycles is you are on a strict schedule and monthly calendar, and you had to inject the drugs at certain times of day in order for them to have maximum effectiveness. So there I was in the middle of the Iraqi Ambassador’s bathroom, shooting up, security cameras on me the whole time.  I left the vials and needles in the trashcan and wondered whether they thought I was a drug addict rather than someone desperately trying to get pregnant.

COPING & BECOMING UNHINGED

As a journalist, humour gets you through the darker stories you have to cover and you compartmentalise and shelve emotions so I erred towards that as a coping mechanism. But I am not one who is good with keeping things bottled up.  I needed to talk about it — with close friends and family, some co-workers. Not an emotional cry for sympathy. No, I just needed them to know what I was going through in order to give me the wide berth I required at times, or to understand why I might not be operating at 100%. I told my anchor and my executive producer in private and they were wonderful not only in respecting what I was going through, but in being genuinely curious about it. They were also shocked to find out that, in our private conversations, three other women in the office were going through it as well.

My doctor told me it’s important to take 2 months off in between IVF cycles to allow your body to recover from a month of intense hormonal injections, an operation, and post-op. Of course, I was impatient and sure I would ‘win’ on the next round. Looking back, I think successful career women in their 30s have a particularly difficult time with this because everything that has been thrown at them until now, they’ve been able to turn into gold. They are high-achieving, tenacious, ambitious, and successful perfectionists — in every aspect of their lives but one. How can this elude them?

In the blur of the next 3 rounds, here’s what I remember:

I started sticking the needles in intramuscularly (just stabbed it straight into my thigh or leg) as my belly and upper ass were getting very bruised and sore.

I remember being at a friend’s wedding and excusing myself while i pulled out my vials and needles and shot up in the Hay-Adams Hotel rooftop bathroom.

I gave away 4 tickets to a Bruce Springsteen concert because I feared standing and jumping around for 4 hours would increase the risk of the eggs falling out. (The doctors always tell you to go home and rest, put pillows under your bum, for the next several days. Didn’t that include “No Stadium Concerts”?).

I read somewhere that eating ginger makes you miscarry. I stopped eating ginger.

I read that eating yams will make you pregnant. I started eating yams and realised why I hadn’t before. I looked up recipes for yams to make them taste good and we had yams every night for a week. I think my husband was verging throwing up every time, but he didn’t say a word.

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I cried on the floor of my bedroom, completely overwhelmed with it all, bruises on my ass, needles by my side.

I went to church and prayed. Oh, Lord, did I pray. I asked for one thing, just one, and I said I would never, ever ask for anything else. Ever. I reasoned with God that when I did pray, I usually asked for help with others (the usual family and friends, pets, then I’d broaden it out to people in suffering countries, war zones, poverty, etc. Strangely, I’d always include travellers and this list would start with planes and cars and trains. But then I’d think about boats and refugees, or trains in India, or busses in South America, so my “Let all travellers get home safely today” prayer was usually very long).  But this one time, I was asking for something solely for myself. Just this once. I promised I would never do it again.

I remember with one cycle, eggs implanted and we were on the way home from the hospital, the sun was shining, my legs up on the dashboard, with the seat rolled down to almost horizontal. My husband and I are at a stop light, and he turns to me and says “Perhaps we should have a cigarette? We sorta just had sex, right?” His sense of humour kept me sane through this whole process.  There is absolutely no way I could have gotten through it without him. He was supportive, unwavering, caring, tender, and very funny. But we’ve talked since then about how medical and unromantic it was. Men tend to be fixers. This process must be extremely difficult for them too.  Anyway, he was my rock. We laughed the rest of the way home with the pillow under my bum and my feet against the windshield.

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My op and post-op demeanour was something to behold, apparently.  I’d try to talk with the doctor and nurses during the operations, pretending we had just run into each other at Starbuck’s. How are you? I would slur. Busy day? What’s your middle name? Reginald is a fabulous name!

Post-op, I was loopy but convinced I was absolutely fine. One time, I remember arguing in between giggle fits with my husband in the parking lot, convinced I was fine to drive us home (I’m fine. Of course I’m fine. FINE! I’m fine.). I sooo wasn’t fine. And he drove.

Another time, we had gotten home and I went to bed but had a call from a 4-Star General talking to me about an interview.  I had been trying to get him forever and this was a coup.  I had a long, completely coherent conversation with him, hung up, and flopped back on the bed asleep. Later, i couldn’t remember anything we discussed.

THE END GAME

At some point along the way, we had to face the reality and I needed to categorise and separate the emotions with the outcome. I had to think logically. Talking to my husband I said “What is our final goal here? At the end of this long journey, what is the brass ring?We want to be parents, right? We want to be parents of one or more children and raise them in a loving family.”  With that as our end goal, I then worked backwards as to how to get there. And looking at it that way, there were many options.

Yes, there were biological urges to be able to have a baby that genetically came from both of us, but if that avenue was exhausted there were others we could try.  There was egg donation; surrogate mothers to carry the embryos; we could pursue adoption. But initially, we absolutely wanted to try for our own child.

By the fourth attempt (5th try, after that disastrous first one which I don’t count), we’d been at it for nearly 18 months. I was reaching my breaking point.  I remember thinking, “This is it. I’m not sure I can carry on.” I felt like a bloated pin cushion and the months of trying were wearing on me. There’s only so much rejection one can take.

Whether it was the yams or the praying, or both, something worked. In the past, I’d had a few false positives only to be told the pregnancy numbers weren’t high enough and I would miscarry in the next week or so. This time my numbers were triple what they should be. I was very pregnant.

After all that effort, focus, time, energy, money, and stress, with just one short phone call from the doctor’s office, the news can be heartbreaking in sadness or heart bursting with happiness.  I will never, ever forget that day and the tears of joy that completely caught me off guard.  We went on to try another 4 times after our little girl arrived, but it wasn’t meant to be. Remember, I promised not to ask for anything else. While in South Africa, I nearly died with complications at 18 weeks pregnant.  That was long ago now, and we’ve got a typical teen – eye rolling, heavy sighs, attitude – who just this morning asked me to help quiz her on her Latin exam. She has no idea what her parents went through to bring her into the world. Kids these days, right?

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DAUGHTERS & MATHS: YOU NEED TO LISTEN TO THIS

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I can’t wait to get home tonight and listen to the Eugenia Cheng on Radio 4 this morning again, but this time with my 13-yr-old daughter.  It is so refreshing to hear someone have such a passion for what he/she does. And to explain it in a way that is ACCESSIBLE to all. 

She’s very funny when talking about the misconceptions the public has of mathematicians: “I’m not one of those people who can multiply large numbers in my head,” she laughs, “No! That’s not what we do all day!”

Replace those preconceived notions with new ones1) maths is not boring  2) you can have an interesting and well-paying job in maths 3) you can travel the globe with a maths job  4) maths is not just for boys.

It’s almost a half-hour long but flies by. Here are my key takeaways:

  • Eugenia is on a mission of ridding the world of maths phobia
  • Maths & baking have lots of similarities (as well as maths & music) — in both you are putting together a lot of ingredients and seeing whether they work or not.
  • You use lots of maths in baking. A mille feuille (delicious French pastry they often attempt on GBBO) involves rolling a pastry out and then folding it into 3, and then you roll it out again and fold into 3 again. You just need to do this 6 times and you have made more than a 1000 layers (ergo the name). Unknown-4
  • Feeling confused about math along the way? This is part of the path. Your brain will stretch.  Her childhood piano teacher would give her pieces that were way to hard for her.  She practiced and practiced and once she got to a point where she was just mastering it, her teacher would give her another, even harder piece. Maths is the same. At first it’s confusing and too hard. And then it’s not. Unknown-5
  • She goes to bars to work on her maths (love that!)
  • Good maths comes out of being lazy. It’s not about getting the right answers. She explains to her students: to be more efficient is to be lazy.  You don’t want to do the same thing over and over again so then you think, why do this over again? So let’s come up with a theory so that we don’t have to do it over and over — we’ve made it easier, quicker, simpler that way. More efficient.
  • Combine your passions for something you like to do. Recognise your strengths that are unique to you. Her mother was  “searingly” logical and her Dad was intuitive, and she feels like she got both those qualities.
  • Don’t listen to stereotypes.

On these last two takeaways, her wise words are worth delving into further.

COMBINE YOURS STRENGTHS

One of the things I’ve told my university students over the years is that I had no idea what I wanted to do after graduation. I was not one of those people who knew at the age of 16 what I wanted to do or be.

I’ve also told my students that you need to think about your strengths and use them. What makes you unique? I was smart enough but not very academic. And definitely not the smartest. I was told I was a “people person”, which I came to hate after a while. What the heck am I going to do with that? I thought.

But here’s where she crystallises what I came to realise after years of transitioning from one job to another. I was gravitating towards my strengths and applying them. On paper, yes, I have had an amazing career — surpassing any and all expectations — living and working in Argentina on my own; working in the White House; working at ABC News/Nightline, with 5 Emmys, a Peabody and a Thurgood Marshall Award for Justice to remind me of all the hard, but worthy, work; working at Foreign Policy magazine; and here in London with IES and Global Change Network. But in each of these positions, I combined strengths, priorities and environment to figure out the best path.

Eugenia makes her path sound so simple. She started GCSE’s doing maths and physics. But then she thought ‘what if I only did maths? Because that’s what I really like’. So she did just maths for her A-levels. At Cambridge, she thought ‘I really like pure maths, not applied maths’ What if I just focus on that? So she narrowed her courses. Before graduating, she thought it’d be really nice to do just algebra. Because that’s what she loves most. For her Master’s, it was category theory that captivated her. For her PhD she decided on higher dimension category theory. My high school’s motto was “Viam inveniam aut faciam” which is Latin for “I shall either find a way or make one”, something Eugenia clearly ascribed to.

After securing a Professorship at the University of Sheffield, she decided to leave. Kudos to interviewer Jim Al-Khalili for pushing her on this decision. Her response encapsulates what my subconscious told me all along (paraphrasing):

“How do I make my own way and have more effect? So I took the category theory approach to life. If you can’t be the biggest fish in the pond, what do you do? You can either grow or move to a smaller pond.  In category theory, you move to the smaller pond and look at more characteristics. I’m not the best mathematician in the world and I’m not the best public speaker in the world. But maybe I could be the best at both: a mathematician who is also a public speaker. The more things you pile on the more likely you are going to be the best of those unique combination of things.”  

She wanted to do maths and communications. She said “find all the things you are good at. Make a list. And figure out how to bring all those things together.” She said if she stopped teaching, someone would easily take her place.  But someone who can explain maths to non-mathematicians in an accessible way is unique.

Admittedly, when she mentioned she was of Chinese origin with a mathematician mother I immediately, and wrongly, thought Ah, well, that’s it. High-achieving parents, extremely disciplined, driven kids – no wonder. She did say she and her sister would fight over who got to practice on the piano (just the opposite of my sister & I  — my Mom would make us sit down to practice for an hour or no dinner).  But the overall context of her message is not who’s going to be hard-working or over-achieving or the best, it’s more about figuring out all the things you are good at and what makes you happy.

DON’T STEREOTYPE

Like Eugenia, I had parents that always instilled in me and my sister that we could be or do anything a man could. We both had no hesitation going out into the world and seeking a career, a profession, rather than a job.

From a very young age, Eugenia watched her Mom put on a suit and go to the City with briefcase in hand. Her Dad and sister would wait at the train to pick her up – a lone female amongst all the males. And it wasn’t until much later that she realised how unusual this was.

Before going to Cambridge, she was warned by her director of studies that it would be male-dominated and full of boys who will all be better than you. They will have been pushed very hard to overachieve. She thought she’d be the worst, so she was pleasantly surprised when she wasn’t the absolute worst in the class. “I had to learn to deal with their arrogance. They had been pushed hard and when they got there they breezed through. And I was surprised when later, my perseverance was helpful. As we had to work incredibly hard for our PhD’s, they had forgotten how to work hard and they fell by the wayside and I carried on.” She knocked down those stereotypes without flinching.

Kudos to Jim Al-Khalili for bringing the best out of her — he clearly loves this issue. Eugenia says “Who is combatting stereotypes of mathematicians? People assume to be a mathematician you have to be old and weird and have no friends; they must be older white guys who can’t make eye contact or are socially inept. Who will help rid the world of maths phobia with a message for the broader audience?” That is the void she hopes to fill. With this interview, she smashed it.

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Does Anyone Over a Certain Age Say This Anymore?

I was speaking to my 13-yr-old recently and coordinating weekend schedules. She wanted go to the mall with her friends to “go shopping” together. That stopped me in my tracks. I didn’t understand why at the time, but a few days later it sunk in.  What is this thing they call “going shopping together”? When would anyone find the time?

Is it just me? Am I the big loser (as The Trumpster so often says)?  I’m over 50, I work and I’m raising a child, we’ve moved continents 3 times (not country, CONTINENTS) and I’m thinking maybe all these things have contributed to my predicament. I racked my brains to think of when anyone last said those 3 little words (“Let’s go shopping!”) to me.

I do remember an Australian friend coming through London on a work trip and we had an afternoon together. We met near Regent Street and she had already stated up front in texts “We have to go shopping! I need more work clothes!”  The idea put fear in me. Perhaps it’s because I’m so bad at it? Or don’t care? I’ve never really been bothered about shopping but always loved my girlfriends who did — who would drag me out and show me what I was missing. I always needed their expertise to help me understand what looked good or what was “in” at the moment. I relied on them.  I was much more comfortable buying stuff online when that became cool — even if it didn’t fit and I was supposed to send it back for a refund (I say this because I’m too lazy and rarely did).

Anyway we went to Reiss near Piccadilly and she helped me pick out a beautiful black-and-white striped jersey Bardot top that I wear constantly. That was about 6 or 7 years ago.  She’s a self-admitted clothes horse and has a room in her house dedicated to just shoes. I think she dropped £600-£800 that weekend.  I’m not making fun at all — I’m admiring. It’s clearly a deficit of mine.  Likewise another friend in L.A. took me shopping years ago in my early 30s on Melrose Avenue and I STILL have the 3 or 4 items she hand-picked for me that I would NEVER have picked for myself. They were so cool and trendy! They don’t fit, of course, but I still have them. Thinking I can recycle them for my daughter?

Anyway, I guess I’m saying I miss it. It’s not to say I haven’t been shopping with my husband or daughter, but that’s different.  It’s less about the shopping and more about the girl talk and bonding that happens whilst shopping. Women, and men, tend to get more isolated as they get older.  Those bonding moments are fewer and far between.  So, I know my friends cannot believe I’m saying this, but sometime soon, will someone ask me to go shopping with them?

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SEXUAL HARASSMENT: LET’S SEE THE FOREST FOR THE TREES

We all feared there would be backlash. The pendulum swung too far too quickly.  Many women friends and I discussed the predicted confusion for men in the workplace as all these stories emerged and suspected they would throw their hands up.

I am from the older generation of women that Lucinda Franks wrote about in the New York Times.  We toughed it out to prove ourselves. We needed to be and act like men to get ahead. We were on our own. I’m so in line with what she said that my uncle emailed me saying he thought I could have written it (yes, Dear Uncle, apart from that small detail of she being a Pulitzer-prize winner). Regardless, we all imagined men fleeing to the hills saying “Who needs women in the workplace? Why bother?”

Normal, average people wouldn’t even fathom acting this way so it’s hard for us to comprehend

What we didn’t predict was where the backlash would come from.  “Bad feminists” and “Good feminists” are squabbling amongst themselves as demonstrated, surprisingly, by Margaret Atwood, who I have deep respect for. In her piece this weekend,  Am I a Bad Feminist?, she defensively uses far too much ink on one (1) wrongly accused man, rather than discuss the overwhelming evidence of police reports worldwide that show more often than not, women who come forward are not heard or listened to. Globally, justice does not prevail for women.  Sadly, this was a case of trying to do the right thing and it back-fired. A one-off.  Wish she’d spent a little more time with her power & influence to turn the conversation forward.

In other instances, we are getting bogged down by semantics. We are name-calling. We should not be lumping together any and all complaint — that will muddy the waters.  There are too many accounts that are sidetracking the true issues to name, so here are a few from just the last few days to really confound you: the ultra-feminist website Babe publishing an expose of Aziz Ansari , Liam Neeson bemoaning the “witch hunt”,  France’s pushback against #MeToo.

CALL FOR CLARITY

Let’s try to see the forest for the trees. We need clarity for this movement to work. We must divide the issues into different buckets and address each one separately. We should not confuse assault with an off-colour joke. Dating a direct line-manager gets into unchartered territory that needs defined guidelines. Equal pay and office bullying are side-issues that are absolutely worth discussing, but best to start with narrow, focused goals.

As part of a women’s group dedicated to solving these problems, we are just starting to identify them, and it will take months of study and analysis before we can unlock effective and long-lasting solutions. But let’s start with assuming that we are talking about the workplace, or work-related scenarios (and not some chance encounter of someone famous, as recounted in the NYT retelling of Aziz Ansari’s date that went badly).

Unraveling this piece by piece, we have the obvious:

SEXUAL ASSAULT & SEXUAL HARASSMENT — The jokes regarding certain alleged (and in Louis CK’s case) admitted behaviour have already started. As if it isn’t really real — just something to laugh at now because it’s so absurd.  Let’s be clear: This did happen. There is no scenario where pulling your penis out and rubbing it against a woman or masterbating in front of women or pinning a woman down on a couch while kissing and groping, or grabbing her private parts without warning without consent is acceptable.

Normal, average, everyday people – men and women – wouldn’t even fathom acting in this way so it’s hard for us to comprehend. It’s easier for us to assume the stories are exaggerated rather than realise we are part of a larger societal problem that buried our heads in the sand for years.  I have heard some of the stories and they are horrific and most important, criminal offences.  In some, the women are petite and the men are physically overpowering. In others the women are young and impressionable and the men are Gods in the office, bringing in the big bucks for the networks or film studios.

The Definition of Sexual Harassment:  Here in the UK (and probably similar in the US) sexual harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act of 2010 and is defined as such:

Sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature which:

  • violates your dignity
  • makes you feel intimidated, degraded or humiliated
  • creates a hostile or offensive environment

You don’t need to have previously objected to someone’s behaviour for it to be considered unwanted.

Again, pretty clear-cut. But I suspect sexual harassment videos, educational and role-playing seminars in workplaces would be helpful. In the past, at all my places of employment, we sat through various HR seminars on discrimination, drug use, and sexual harassment with a sort of giggle and swagger like we were back in 8th grade and the teacher was teaching us how to put a condom on a banana.  Now, I think (I hope) they will be taken more seriously.

THE GREY AREAS

The grey areas are the ones we really need to nail down. Here are some that need delving into more:

DATING A DIRECT SUPERIOR/LINE-MANAGER — Back in the 1950s, my Southern belle mother arrived in NYC at “Manny Hanny” (the investment bank Manufacturer’s Hanover) working her way up to Head Librarian in the Research Department (2018 equivalent might be Head of Research/Duodiligence) by the time she was 26. My Dad was a Cornell grad recently arrived in the bank’s training program.  He was often found in the Research Dept unnecessarily and when their dating became serious and obvious, they knew one of them would have to leave as company policy stated interoffice dating wasn’t allowed.  What they weren’t prepared for was that Manufacturer’s Hanover management asked my Dad to leave, as he was one of many Ivy league trainees, whereas my Mom’s invaluable expertise and management skills over a team of women researchers was indispensable.  Don’t take my word for it, this policy was common practice: In George Clooney’s movie, Good Night and Good Luck, they portray 2 people dating in a 1950s newsroom.

It’s easier to assume the stories are exaggerated than to realise we are part of a societal problem

Of course, we’ve come a long way since then, but interoffice dating is a very tricky, grey area (at least in my mind and various polling). This is where I think research and study will help going forward.  If there is a married older “company” man in the office who is powerful and prominent, and he pursues aggressively a relationship with a younger, impressionable employee who may or may not be directly line-driven by him, but who knows that any move she makes will have huge repercussions for the office, what are the rules or guidelines here? What is her recourse? What if the person is not married but in charge of bonuses and the underling doesn’t want to be punished financially if she doesn’t respond accordingly? What if two people date, break up, and then the underling is in line for a promotion that the superior has a say in?

There are many scenarios that need fleshing out, but clearly defined rules and guidelines are a must.

OFFICE POLITICAL MACHINE — All too often, I heard from various women that they did not know who to turn to. They did not know their rights and were afraid of ruining their careers. At other times, women DID reach out to superior men AND women in the offices and were met with resistance or, shockingly, completely ignored. The change here should be swift: Put into place a sexual harassment ombudsman (for lack of a better term) or ombudswoman. Someone whose sole purpose is to field the various victims who come forward; someone who will investigate claims, work the alleged accusation through a proper system and chain of command. No one is above or beneath the law. Power and prestige in the office is invisible. The time for Non-Disclosure Agreements and pay-offs is over.

Additionally, there should be some set of rules or guidelines in place for AFTER an inquiry — whether it comes to fruition or not. The accuser is not a pariah in the office. She/he should not be sidelined or marginalised.  This is discrimination.  Again, I think more research and outside expertise would be helpful.

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IDENTIFYING SEXUAL PREDATORS — In a previous post I wrote about men as sexual predators (towards children and women and other men). This is a societal issue but as Arthur in the previous piece said “the time is right to do something now. It’s an appropriate moment in society”. He also said that the man who assaulted him as a child was “facilitated by a system that encouraged silence.” And that men like his abuser were “in a position of power and authority and gain/gratification was taking away the power of others.”  Finally, the experts on the program who study sexual predators said “underlings are powerless to do anything and predators know this.” Arthur went to police in 2003 and was ignored. He went back this past year and this time, the police listened. His abuser was sentenced to 4 years in jail last week.

Remember, we are not talking about someone who made an off-colour remark about a woman’s blouse or her lipstick (although that is something to address). We are talking about men who repeatedly, over 20 years in some cases, harassed or assaulted women (or men) in the workplace.  I cannot imagine that this kind of behaviour could have gone on without the knowledge of others around them. We need to identify men who cannot cope with power or who have serious predatory behaviour, however subtle or secretive. Identifying men like this is important to set the tone and morale of the office.  If others knew these men were doing things and getting away with it, what message does that send everyone else?

It’s the very nature of television news and Hollywood that these stories are fascinating to a larger audience and garnering attention. Do you think we’d be having this conversation if Joe Public from the accounting dept. was harassing women? Or if Jim X on the factory floor was assaulting underlings? We should not be fooled. The stories I heard relate to the headlines, but they are happening everywhere.

So, yes, if you see women in news and Hollywood picking up the flag and marching forward its because we have a unique voice and opportunity to change society globally.  We risk shooting ourselves in the foot if we lose focus, bite off more than we can chew, or in-fight. Let us not cripple the momentum.  We must prove that our earlier worries were unwarranted — that this #MeToo movement would harm us in the end.

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PREDATORY MEN & POWER

Listening to the Vanessa Feltz program this morning on BBC Radio London, I heard a very difficult interview with the most calm, decent and eloquent man named Arthur regarding terrible sexual abuse to him as a child by a teacher at Christ Hospital School in Sussex.

Arthur was riveting. Not because of the horrible details of what happened to him, but in the brave, articulate and resolved way with which he discussed it. It was a brilliant, emotional program and worth tuning into.

By talking about it, you are taking back the power the abuser stole from you.

But while I was listening, I was also thinking about the various stories of sexual harassment and abuse in the news recently by powerful and influential men in Hollywood and journalism.  I can’t think of anything more atrocious than being abused as a child – it really is undeniably the most heinous of things.  But hearing him speak about the abuse of power and society and the way he dealt with it, I couldn’t help but draw some similarities to the young women being preyed upon in offices across the globe.

He said so much worth repeating.  I was driving at the time so I might not have the details perfect, but Arthur was abused as a child between the years of 1970 and 1973 by a man named Peter Burr.  As Arthur says, he didn’t have the vocabulary or words to describe what was happening to him but he just knew it was wrong. In 2003, he gathered up his nerve and called the police and spoke to someone there.  They didn’t do anything and he wasn’t taken seriously. He doesn’t blame them.  He said “I bear no resentment.  There was no language in society, no understanding, no compartment to put that information in, and I did as much as I could.”

The abuser was facilitated by a system that encouraged silence

Fast forward to last year and he was listening to the Vanessa Feltz show about Jimmy Saville and abusers and it spurred him to get in touch with the producers.  Paraphrasing: “You store all of this up in a box. You tuck it away. After hearing the BBC London program about abuse and Jimmy Saville, I realized there were other men and girls now who were children who commonly had the same experience. I heard that program and thought more had to be done.”

So he got in touch with Gemma the producer who said perhaps we can help and asked him to go back to the police.  He went on to say “the time is right to do something now. It’s an appropriate moment in society.  For the first time in my life, I had a story to tell, a complaint to make, and the police listened and they acted and society supported that action. At last, justice is done.  I am grateful for that.”  Peter Burr pleaded guilty and last week was convicted on 9 counts and is serving 4 years in prison.

But what really got me is somewhere between 8:15 and 8:30 AM (about 1:15:00 into the program), he said a few things that rang so true to my experience and the experiences of others who were young women working in offices of powerful men.  I’ve been grappling with why I feel guilty about not coming forward earlier. I know the man who tried to attack me ended up harassing and abusing women for 20 years. I feel lucky in that I got away before any real damage was done. I was attacked, I fought him off, I got away. Others weren’t so fortunate. And that makes me cry and makes me very, very angry.

Arthur said the man who abused him and other boys was a man who was “facilitated by a system that encouraged silence”. This couldn’t be more true of the nature of newsrooms and Hollywood and frankly, everywhere else where there were predators.  He also said the man is like many predators who are “exercising their complete power of control over you for their own sexual gratification. Utter power over you.”  The conversation revealed that Peter took gratification by abusing the power of his positionHe was a man in a position of power and authority and his gain was taking away the power of others.  But it was also the culture at the time. Arthur recognizes this.  He said “attitudes of the police have changed so much. From the 1970s, 80s, even 10 years ago. The time is now.”

Later in the program they had experts on to talk about this further.  Power in relationships is the key.  Underlings are powerless to do anything and predators know this.  In this case, it could be young boys abused by teachers, or young women abused or harassed by powerful, influential, sometimes famous men whose authority and power in the office atmosphere is very apparent.  It is very hard to take BACK that power, as the panellists on Vanessa’s show said: “They are very clever and manipulative people who know they can dominate and that’s the reward for them.  The sexual predatory behaviour is the result.”

Arthur said that by talking about it, you’ve taken back that control that people had over you. Talking about it is empowering, he said.  You are not alone and you realize that when you hear other stories.  Even if you can’t go through the court process just sharing it with others brings back control.  You’ve dealt with it.

He said “I know that justice has been served.  I know I’ve done all I can do.”  I agree with him when he says that the time is right. Now, in 2018, wider society says this is wrong. Abuse of power and predatory behaviour is wrong. There is a big sea change.

I have heard from women who are raw. Who were attacked, who were abused, who were harassed, who were taken advantage of.  They were young, they didn’t know how to react, they were paralyzed with fear.  They did not know who to reach out to, how to report, what to report, what the repercussions would be.  Many feared for their jobs or the fallout from being the “problem” person in the office.  Many thought they were the only one harassed (myself included).  Others were so traumatized they left news completely.  They changed careers. How sad a state of affairs that young women journalists starting out in their careers and arriving at the bright, brilliant allure of the all-powerful television news networks ended up fleeing in fear and pain because of the men who abused their trusted power.  Worst still, others did report the problems and little was done.

I agree with Arthur: The time is now. As part of an organisation of women whose mission is to change the newsroom culture, I hope we can pave a smoother path for future generations.  Our culture, our newsrooms, our offices, our police, our superiors, our leaders all recognize that enough is enough. There is a new cultural awareness and a new intolerance.  Change is here. Finally, thankfully.

IF YOU DON’T GET THIS, WE HAVE A PROBLEM

A NEW ERA ON SEXUAL HARASSMENT CULTURE & POLICIES

I couldn’t be happier that Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2017 is The Silence Breakers :

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The time is now to make change in both societal norms and corporate policies. But this is not something only women can do. Far from it, it must be fostered from men just as much — if not more. Together we can all step up to the table to discuss change in the culture and society.  Except for those very brave few, many of us – myself included – were complicit in our actions (or non-actions) regarding sexual harassment. And we are at a moment where the momentum has shifted dramatically so we must take advantage and not lose the drive and focus we rarely get.

Today, I am part of an organisation who made an announcement with the hopes to truly find a better way forward for the news industry.  Here is our website (and the goals we have laid out):

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We are still in nascent stages and will continue to grow and prioritise our goals and adapt to new directions. But beyond the above, and what’s mentioned here in the AP article today, here’s what I see as important to this cause:

  1. STRENGTH IN NUMBERS: We banded together to find concrete solutions and ways to move forward with effectiveness.
  2. STUDY: We hope — through a 6-month comprehensive, transparent, wide-reaching study — to be able to provide a blueprint that will be the foundation moving forward. This study will analyse the sexual harassment policies and culture within various media organisations.
  3. INCLUSIVENESS: We sincerely expect to do this study with the support and access from various titans of the media industry — the networks themselves and the people at the helms. But it’s important that an independent organisation like ourselves, working outside the system  and hierarchy, provide solutions and building blocks.
  4. RESOURCES: We want to provide a one-stop haven for anyone working in the media to be able to come to our website and see what their legal rights are, what support networks are out there, what counselling is available, what each company’s organisational sexual harassment policies are, what each network provides through it’s internal structure and reporting systems.
  5. LEGAL RIGHTS & LAWS: Knowledge and understanding of one’s legal rights is important.  We hope to provide sources or point people in the right direction to understand state and federal laws regarding sexual harassment.
  6. TRUST: Trust has been a big issue with sexual harassment. One of two scenarios happened in the past: either men and women came forward because they TRUSTED their organisations to protect them and TRUSTED them to help seek justice, only to find that their organisations let them down in the worst way.  Not only did they not protect them, they protected the aggressor and the victims were left to defend themselves. Or the second scenario: men and women didn’t trust the system to work for them and, fearing for their careers and advancement and being ostracised, they kept quiet. For far too long. We need to rebuild trust.
  7. DESTIGMATIZE: We must work with all of society and within organisations to destigmatize the role of the victim coming forward in sexual harassment cases.  Police officers countrywide will tell you this is still a problem within the courts as well as on the streets. As we have done on our school yards, so should we do in the workplace. The moment that a child comes forward with a claim of bullying, they are to be believed until the case is investigated. More often than not, school policy is to remove the bully at once, protecting the victim and the environment around them. We must adapt this attitude and policy for our offices.
  8. NEED FOR CLARITY: A majority of men (and women) are the good guys. However, many relationships and marriages are commenced and built within the workplace. We need a better and more clear understanding of the rules and rights within the workplace for dating, for relationships, for male-female co-existence where no one party is feeling uncomfortable. This is a grey area as many in the workplace are either above or below each other within the hierarchy, so there must be some clear policies in how to handle this.
  9. MEN: We absolutely need men to help us in our endeavours and goals for Press Forward. Having their input will be crucial to getting this right!
  10. REPORTABLE/PUBLISHABLE SOLUTIONS: We hope at the end of this we will have a positive outcome to the pain this past year has caused so many.  If, at the end of the day, we can feel part of a concrete solution that will stand as the gold standard by which others can build upon, we will have served a good purpose and fulfilled a need.

 

Do NOT have difficult conversations on Fridays!

I’ve found that Friday’s are the hardest day of the week interpersonally. We are all tired. We’ve had a long week. We are looking forward to the weekend to catch up on sleep or relax. But with work, kids, friends and my husband, I am at my lowest emotionally. I am grumpy. I am short with people. Or even on the rare occasion I’m not, then they are.

An old boss at Nightline gave me the best advice ever: he said never have tough conversations with colleagues or bosses on Thursdays or Fridays. You are less understanding, less forgiving. Most office arguments occur at the end of the week. Have a gripe? Wait until Monday. Need to tell a subordinate they are not performing well? Give it the weekend.  I looked back at all the difficult conversations I had had that DIDN’T go well, and damnit, he was right.

At home, it’s the same. All my arguments with my husband are usually Thursday or Friday when we’re both tired and don’t have anything left in the tank to deal with each other. And with kids, my fuse is short and many times I didn’t know it until I looked back later and saw that I wasn’t myself.

The Meltdown

One Friday I had to pick our daughter up from pre-school. We had just moved back from South Africa and everything was topsy-turvy. Our sea shipment hadn’t even arrived yet so we were living out of boxes. We were having a dinner party for 7 and I had to get home to cook and prepare. And yes! We got a flat tire on the way home so I pulled into Wagshall’s Deli where there is a gas station to get it fixed while I did some quick shopping for the party. Then my husband rang while I was picking up some cheeses to say the dinner had gone from 7 to 11 people, and that won’t be a problem right? At 3 PM he tells me this! Sigh. I get more cheeses and head to the cash register when it all kicked off. The 4-yr-old Child wanted a Diet Coke and I told her no (of course). She went into a full-on tantrum. It was Exorcist-child worthy. Complete raging melt-down (see? She was tired, too, at week’s end, but did i realise that? Noooo….I was just thinking about the car and my dinner party).

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I gathered up the groceries,  got to the counter to pay, but while doing so, she had grabbed a bag of potato chips off the rack nearby. Not the small ones — no, she went for the American Extra Large Supersize bag of potato chips — almost as big as she. Glaring at me the whole time with an evil look of defiance, she plopped them on the floor and ever so quickly sat on them with gusto. The air-tight bag burst and potato chips went flying everywhere. I was trying to hold onto a wriggling, arms and legs flailing, strong 4-yr-old but it was impossible with my oversized purse and 3 bags of groceries. I withered, looked at the horrified clerk at the till and said “Add that on my bill please”.  By the time we got out of the shop, she’d done it again.

On the sidewalk, I let her just writhe on the ground as there wasn’t much I could do to control her. She was pinwheeling around on her side, kicking and screaming.  Looked across to the gas station to see the car up on the hydraulic getting its tire changed, and sighed again. A woman came out of the dry cleaners next door, saw the Exorcist child, stepped delicately over her, gave me a look for sympathy and camaraderie and said, “Been there, done that.” I loved her. She was my saviour.

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Then as quickly as it came, it stopped. The car was fixed, I buckled her into her car seat and as we drove off she exclaimed “I’m done now, Mommy. All fine.” Of course, I was seething at this point. It had been 45 minutes of Crazy Tantrum Child. Everyone and their grandmother within 3 miles probably heard her.  My herculean embarrassment had been building up since the deli and all the “Bad Mother” stares I got, and continued as I was trying to pay for the car. I didn’t realise how angry I was. At home, I had a terrible headache and got out some frozen peas to put on my forehead.  I can’t remember what it was that triggered it, but we started up again.  She was really testing my patience and, while I was putting the groceries away, she grabbed a handful of frozen peas in her little hands and brought her arm back in the baseball throw position.  Very slowly and carefully I said, “I need to tell you that if you throw those peas, Child, there will be consequences.  I need you to understand that.” The arm came down. It was a perfect pitch. Peas flew everywhere through 3 rooms.

My rage erupted. I sent her up to her room for a “time-out” as she had melted down again.  But as I look back now, so had I.  It was 5 PM and 11 people were coming in two and a half hours. I called my husband and said get home right now. I need help. I did NOT trust myself to deal with her. As he came in the door, I was cooking and things had gone quiet upstairs. Before heading upstairs to Child, he sweetly pulled a pea from my hair and soothingly offered to pour me a glass of wine, to which I (very rare) said no. I really didn’t trust myself to start drinking because I was worried I’d never stop.  He went up to deal with her and calmed us all down. By the time guests arrived, she was fine, I was a bit fragile and shaken, but we recovered for a lovely evening.

But it wasn’t until months later that I realised how these events unfolded. The stress of a long, busy week, arriving back into the country with no furniture and new routines and environment, a dinner party exploding in size, a tired child, a tired mommy, a flat tire, frozen peas in every corner of the house, all those things contributed to the bad karma.  But I can’t shake the feeling that – would this have happened on a Monday morning, for example – I might have been a little more patient, a little less tired, had a little more energy to deal with her. Or a little more clarity to see the stress mounting at my door.

So, best advice that’s stayed with me for years: Do NOT make any harsh decisions on Fridays. Do NOT have any difficult conversations. Wait. Give yourself until Monday and if you still feel the same, then you can act — but likely you will be more clear-headed about what it is you are angry or frustrated or upset about.

 

BAD PARENTING, CHAPTER ONE

Isn’t it about this time of year that we all start to feel the pressure? Had it up to here with everyone’s perfect lives on Facebook? The holidays are nearly upon us and you are struggling…with work, with kids, with partners, with parents, with life. You take stock in the last year – or decade – and wonder how did you fall so far behind? Why are the expectations so high?

It doesn’t help that society seems to sell us this unattainable, successful, exemplary family, or children, or friends. You know who I’m talking about. The endless posts from that certain person in your life who always has something wonderful to say about themselves, or their husbands, or their kids, or themselves, or remodelled kitchens, or themselves, or…you get the picture.

With that in mind, I thought it’s time to pull back the curtain. Take down the smokescreens! No one’s perfect. Life is hard. We all make mistakes. Oh, Lordy, do we make mistakes. Mine would fill a book larger than War and Peace.

So I’ll start with one category: Parenting. Let’s call this Bad Parenting, Chapter 1 (as I’m sure there’ll be more). Hopefully you can learn from my mistakes, or laugh at them. Either way, it might help to put things into perspective as you head into the holiday season. Main takeaway? Most parents have absolutely NO CLUE what they are doing. And yet, kids are remarkably resilient and (usually) turn out fine. If I could tell my younger self one thing I’d say don’t sweat it. All will be fine. But at the time, it’s terrifying and you question everything about your judgment, your instinct and your I.Q.

DAY ONE: FIRST BIG MISTAKE

Our very first mistake! On the day we arrived home from the hospital! Mom had given us an old copy of Dr. Spock’s bible on newborns from the 1960s and my husband, trying desperately to partake in this birth process proactively, read it cover to cover. I think it was chapter two that opened with “You can never overfeed a new born”. Ahhh, well, no. Not entirely true.

Walking in the door 36 hours after she was born, we put the Child in her little car seat on the dining room table, looked at each other with genuine panic and wondered “What now?” I think every parent wishes there was a set of instructions to go home with, some manual you are given as you leave the hospital “How To Care For Your New Child!” like you’d get when you bring home an orchid from the garden centre.

I had breastfed her and she was still fussy. I breastfed some more. Still fussy. I breastfed until there was nothing left. Still fussy. We skipped anxiety and went straight to panic-mode. Made up a little bottle of formula and fed it to her. She guzzled it all and got even fussier. Then it was wailing and crying. We really panicked. Called the paediatrician who asked us how much from the bottle we fed her. Apparently we fed her the amount you’d feed a 2 month old – not a day old child – plus the breastmilk.

She calmly told us to lie her on her back, wiggle her teeny legs like she’s riding a bicycle, try to gently smooth down her stomach. After which, in about an hour, “there will literally be a river of poo coming out of your child” as she so eloquently put it. And oh, was she right! It was phenomenal how much could flow out of that little being. Like a Volkswagon Beetle full of clowns. Amazing Scientific Discoveries would have been impressed. Of course, right after, she fell soundly and snugly asleep. I never looked at that dining room table the same again.

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MONTH 3: AIRPLANE MISERY

We were returning to the States after going to the U.K. to introduce her to all her English relatives. I had just cut down and completed breast-feeding before going back to work after 11 weeks off. I didn’t feel comfortable working in a male-dominated environment, being in meetings, talking to my executive producer and news anchor with leaky breasts. Just wasn’t me. And good old “family-friendly” Disney – owner of ABC News — only gave us 6 weeks off maternity leave, so I had to make up the rest in sick leave, holiday time and a very sympathetic boss.

The day before getting on an 8-and-a-half hour flight, I ran out of the soy milk formula I brought for the transition as she was intolerant to cow’s milk (remember? Day One?). Without any breast milk or soy milk, though, my only choice in Boots chemist at the time was regular formula. We got on the plane and it all kicked off. She was sobbing and wailing in decibels I had never heard. People around us were glaring. The flight attendants came by several times politely asking if we needed help. We were patting her back, bouncing her up and down, giving her the pacifier. We were miserable failures. Soon the whole plane was throwing dagger looks. As a parent with a wailing kid, you DEFINITELY notice. They’re thinking “Why can’t they shut that kid up!?” I know because until I had the Child, I used to be that person!

Slow that we are, it finally dawned on us that it was the whole “river of poo” thing except maybe the opposite. Perhaps she was constipated? We took her to the Lilliputian airplane bathroom and both of us squeezed in with her. At least the screeching was now behind a door. After undoing her diaper, the problem was obvious. Yes, there was a rock-like poo stuck half-way trying to come out. Poor little thing! My news producer mode took over. “OK, let’s move her little legs in a bicycle”. Husband was moving them so fast she would have won the Tour De France. He was very stressed. I was rubbing her belly and trying gently to push that little poo out. Nothing was happening. We were in there for what felt like hours, but it was probably only about 20-30 minutes? We definitely heard maybe 2 knocks on the door at some point.

Anyway, I finally did what any mother would do and took my little pinkie fingernail and started scraping away at that poo to get it out. Sure enough, that little pebble shot out like a bullet, hit the door and ricocheted to the floor. “Which way did it go?” my husband yelled. “We’ll get it later!” I yelled back. A few smaller little pebbles shot out too, like one of those tennis ball machines, pop pop popping out in succession, but we actually caught those. And then, like before, the crying stopped, and she fell sound asleep. Problem solved. My husband went back to the seats with her while I cleaned up the bathroom. I was fine, but he was clearly shaken. Speaking later, we both realized how helpless you feel in a long metal tube 40,000 feet over the Atlantic with only Greenland insight. We’ve all been there, right?

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MONTH 9: GERMS (AND A HIT ON THE HEAD)

I was working hard, had a full-time nanny, husband back at work and all is fine! We can DO this parenting thing! Travelling alone up to Nova Scotia to meet up with my husband and the family, I was sitting in National Airport getting work done and the Child was a crawling phenom. Fine. Let her be free! She was crawling all over the floor, the carpet, the chairs, lifting herself up to stand by the trashcan (in retrospect, should have seen the danger there), getting her little fingers on everything and then putting them in her mouth as she was teething at the time.

We got on the plane, switched in Montreal to a little 16 seater plane and as I arrived at the gate the overhead speaker announced “Can Dianna Pierce please return to the Security Area?” Apparently, as I went through security and left the sippy cup, passports and boarding passes at the magnetometer machines. That’s Mommy-brain for you. So had to double back running through the airport OJ Simpson-styel with the Child in her handy-dandy forward facing papoose. Completely breathless, went up the stairs of this really teeny plane and everyone was already seated and glaring. Standing in the middle of the aisle I had to pull her out quickly from her papoose but in doing so, lifted her up and out so fast I didn’t realize how tiny the plane was (did I say? It was VERY tiny!) and literally banged her head against the ceiling. Another trip with passengers unhappy with us.

Got to Nova Scotia, lovely holiday for about 48 hours after which she got a very high fever (103.5 degrees) and the Tylenol wasn’t helping. We rushed her to the hospital in Halifax where the doctors asked “Has she been anywhere recently where she could have picked up some germs?”. Ahhh, er, hmmm. All of National Airport’s floors? Bad mother. Bad, bad mother. She picked up a virus and the doctors tended to her. But these little babies are resilient and after 3 days of misery, along with lots of love and care, she was fine.

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18 MONTHS: LOOKING AWAY…JUST FOR A SECOND…

My last instalment for today was while we were living in South Africa. We’d gone to a bicycle shop to pick out a new bicycle for my husband’s birthday. In tow I had her…and the GINORMOUS bag of paraphernalia that comes with an 18-month old: the diapers, wet wipes, diaper disposal bags, binkies, burping cloth, an extra hat, or sweater, her blankie and her favourite stuffed animal.

In the shop was a short set of stairs (I counted later – exactly 8) leading up to a platform with more bikes and tires. I walked up the stairs with her in my arms and the bag over my shoulder. I set her down on my right as she fingered the tires. I turned to my left to put my massive diaper bag down and as I was setting it on the floor, thought “hmmm, I put her down awfully close to the stairs.”

I turned around in time to see her little feet teetering on the edge of the stairs, she facing me with a look of surprise, and waving her arms.  As she’s falling backwards, I lunge out in desperation. This was all happening in extreme slow motion. My outstretched hand reached out and snatched…air…about one inch from her little coat.

My next thought as she tumbled down was to watch carefully as she went to see where she hit what, watching for possible breaks. The good news is she was dressed to the hilt in winter clothes, covered up like a little Michelin man. And she cartwheeled down in a way that, as best as I could tell, an elbow got a whack but everything else seemed ok. She landed on her stomach, arms and legs splayed.

The whole shop was silent for about 2-3 seconds as everyone had turned because, without realizing it, I had shouted out. The delay was interminable. She had this look of shock…then wonder…her eyes blinked, then hang on! I’m in pain! And then the wailing. Most parents will tell you the longer the delay, the better, as that means they are processing the pain and hurt and it’s just dawned on them that something scary has happened to them, and THEN they start to cry. If it’s really real pain, it will come sooner.

Anyway, she had a bruised elbow, a teeny bruise on her cheek, but all was fine. I never set foot in that shop again. And my husband bought an insanely expensive bike with the guilt he felt for traumatizing everyone.

        ————————————————–

So, there you have it! Just a few examples of bad parenting mistakes. And we’re only up to 18 months old! Many many more. I should point out that said Child is now a lovely, well-adjusted, bright, intelligent, funny, athletic 13-yr-old. She remembers absolutely nothing of these moments that have scarred my husband and I for life.

I suppose perspective is everything, isn’t it? I look back at any of the more trying moments of my life and realize I just did whatever it took to get through them. In retrospect, I’m somewhat amazed at what we did. I think there were 14 cross-Atlantic flights between the US and UK and South Africa before our Child was 4. I have no idea how we did it. In the moment, it’s awful. But now we look back and laugh.

Next, I’ve got more from the toddler years (trying to catch projectile vomit with our hands (!) on another plane journey as she covers us and the South African rugby team captain with throw-up), a fabulous 4-yr-old tantrum story, and then we can move in to the horrendous first generation parenting of kids with mobile devises!! Fun stuff!

Are We At A Tipping Point?

[I write this missive to my daughter with the hopes that one day she will read and perhaps learn something about me and our times, but also come to understand the conflict, the setbacks, the inspiration, the tenacity and focus that goes into pushing a society from thinking one way to ACTING another.]

I am weary. Yet another story.  Last night, U.K. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon resigned saying his standards in the past have “clearly fallen short” of those standards required of the Armed Forces, which he represents.  The story circulating publicly pertains to a 2002 incident in which he repeatedly put his hand on a journalist’s knee. This, on the heels of an allegation by a brave young woman who says she was raped by someone senior within the Labour Party and was “warned” against pursuing the claim.  And add to that Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Mark Halperin, who have been accused of sexual harassment.  The floodgates have opened.  The amount of accusers suggests this lewd and gross misconduct was happening frequently and – by the sound of it – all of LA/DC/London seemed to have some inkling that these men were particularly slimy with younger people left alone in their lecherous hands. These men used their positions of power and influence to prey on and victimize those subordinate to them.  And I am saddened, but rueful and cynical. I talk to my women friends and many of us have the same reaction.  These revelations are not new (Bill Clinton, Dominic Strauss Kahn, Roger Ailes, Clarence Thomas, Senator Packwood, the list goes on…). We all assume Fallon resigned because there is more to the story or there are other women who have yet to come forward (“It can’t be just touching a woman’s knee?! Seriously? There must be more”).  We have all worked hard for 20 + years in careers that inevitably brought us face to face with sexual innuendo and inappropriate behaviour and yes, sexual harassment by the textbook, legal definition. If you asked any one of us “was it wrong?” we would say absolutely, yes. Firmly, without a doubt. None of my female friends, family, and colleagues are shrinking violets. We are successful career women with families who do the juggle, the dance, because we can and we want to. Are we fighters? Yes. Has it been easy? Hell, no. Should any one of us in any of our #MeToo moments have reported the incident and sought recourse? Probably. But we didn’t. And the answer to “Why not?” lies also in that deafening silence that many in Hollywood and Washington and elsewhere kept (men AND women alike).

Silence about bad behaviour does not mean acceptance. We get by with the tools given to us to make us fighters. To survive, one must always pick and choose battles.

How do I explain this to you? I am complicit in this. Perhaps I am a failure to you and your generation, I think. If any of the things that happened to any of these women – to me – happened to you, I’d be outraged. On the other hand, I was brought up by a strong mother (and father) who taught us how to be feisty, independent and fight for a place in the male-dominated workplace.  Some history and context here – we just went to see the movie Battle of the Sexes together, right? And I explained to you how bad the movie was on the broader issues, remember? The meaning of that one match was enormous to a generation of women and their daughters.  There were ERA marches on Capitol Hill, women were pushing for equal pay, equal rights in the workplace, it was the “women libbers” vs “male chauvinist pigs” who thought women should stay at home in the kitchen pregnant.  There was a palpable uprising in the air and I could feel the electricity in my mother as she lectured my sister and I about how “our generation will get what her generation missed – an opportunity to be anything a man could be.”  A gathering at our house watched that match. And I remember, as an impressionable 9-year old, how ecstatic and triumphant the women were when Billy Jean King won.  What I didn’t know –  because my Dad was right there with my Mom telling us men and women are intellectually equal – was that there was an undercurrent of tension and resentment (probably rooted in fear of change, of upsetting the ‘status quo’) amongst men.  I now understand the term “feminists” rolled off these men’s tongues with a sneer.  Some of the younger men in the workplace at the time ended up being the older men I would work for once I graduated from university in 1986.  So the winds of change do not come overnight.

Back to now, or rather to 20 years ago when most of these incidents coming out now occurred. A new generation of women populated offices across the country. But the residual effects of an earlier generation still existed. As Brit Marling points out, it was only in 1974 that women could apply for credit cards in their own name. Financial independence and career women were newly on the scene in growing numbers. And they were moving up. And yet, the social and moral attitudes, culture and laws were still playing catch up.  If any one of us, at that time, had come forward, there would have been little – if any – recourse. The support systems and protection of the workplace would not have helped us. We would have been deemed annoying ‘troublemakers’ and become pariahs in our offices. We felt that our careers would stumble or fall if we spoke up, and if not immediately, then over time, we would be ousted.

We all do what we need to do, sometimes, to protect ourselves. But silence about bad behaviour does not mean acceptance. We get by with the tools given to us to make us fighters, to make us tough. To survive, one must always pick and choose battles.  I was part of this system.  My story is no different, although far less invasive than some of the horror stories I’ve heard.  In my late 20s, a powerful and well-known man in Washington circles who was far senior to me (same industry but we did not work at the same place), followed me into an empty elevator. He shoved me up against the wall and attempted to grope and kiss me. Thoroughly disgusted and nauseous, I kneed him in the groin, told him angrily and firmly to STOP, and quickly got out of the elevator.  I knew what was right and wrong. I had never liked this guy and my spider-sense always told me he was a slimy, nasty piece of work.  He was physically overpowering to my 5 ft. 6 and a half, slim frame.  But there was no way I was going to be a ‘victim’. And it’s that toughness, that fighter, that absolute belief in my convictions, that told me to fight back quickly and swiftly and extricate myself from that situation.  But did I tell anyone? Did I do anything about this? I told some male and female friends in my circle. I might have even told my boss. But I knew making any sort of waves would jeopardize my career.  And that was more important to me. I left with my dignity intact.  I was not physically harmed. I had amazing opportunities with my career ahead of me. I was just beginning to be taken seriously as an adult. I was finally coming into my own as a career woman, and this was not going to stop me. I was luckier than other women (and men) whose stories we are hearing now. But I wonder whether they were thinking something similar when faced with the dilemma: Do I tell?

Millennials are outraged at things we all used to tolerate. Does this moral intolerance present an opportunity for change that should be harnessed?

 

So here we are in 2017.  Are we at a tipping point? Has society caught up? Are there stronger social and support mechanisms in place to handle this swiftly, cleanly, justly?  A confession: I am not a fan of the Millennials. Yet here is a question to ponder.  Does the constant moral outrage of Millennials present an opportunity for change that should be harnessed? I have watched as this new generation, these so-called “snowflakes”, melt at the first sign of offence or insult. I hear from friends in the States that it’s a phenomenon sweeping the country – safe zones for virtually every individual on college campuses – university professors insulting kids in class without knowing what they’ve done wrong.  Here in the U.K. it’s catching on too: At Oxford, professors send out announcements and alerts about matter being discussed in class ahead of time, just in case anyone might be offended by the subject and not want to come.  To me, the pendulum has swung too far. We will all be walking on eggshells soon, but then who will defend the eggshells? Don’t they deserve a safe-zone too? I don’t know where it will stop but I find we’ve raised a generation of ‘bubble’ kids and I’m not sure what has happened to the toughness we grew up with in the 70s.

The Millennials are outraged at things we all used to tolerate.  But, perhaps we have just enough of the older generations moving out and the younger generations moving in that the scales have tipped to favour the young and all that they bring to the workplace. Perhaps this over-sensitivity will have its positives, namely 100% intolerance to sexual harassment in the workplace.  I don’t know the answer, but I am willing to be convinced.  [And if so, PLEASE could we have this same confluence of influence, generational change and intolerance for the gun control issue too?]

It could be the timing is right (as my brilliant friend Muriel Demarcus points out, timing is everything). US Labour website says nearly 47 percent of U.S. workers are women (74.6 million of us toiling away), and women own close to 10 million businesses.  70% of mothers with children participate in the work force. And very interesting: Mothers are the primary or sole earners for 40 percent of households with children under 18 today, compared with 11 percent in 1960.  Men are more enlightened now, having lived and worked side by side with a growing workforce of women for 40 years.

So I think we must strike while the iron is hot.  Some friends back home fear this new movement will cause a backlash amongst men who will be pushed to resent women working in the office and boardrooms. My husband says just the opposite. As he rightly points out, the majority of men out there are the good guys. They are the ones we have relied on, been supported by, and who live by the same moral codes. He says “if there is backlash, it’s likely to be amongst the older generation of men who are dinosaurs now. And they need to learn to moderate their language and behaviour, or retire.” That’s that. Change is good. And he feels most men aged 20-40, even up to 50, will feel the same.

I believe the confluence of our transitional generation, who grew up in the 70s and 80s along with the newer millennials is the perfect marriage for true and lasting change in our society.  Left alone, both sides would flounder.  We older folks are too cynical and jaded. I have one friend who works in finance who laughs when telling me she consistently fails her company’s “sensitivity” test because she doesn’t push “RED” (out of options Green = Acceptable, Yellow = Borderline, and Red = Unacceptable, Needs To Be Reported) when she should. She said if she pushed RED when they suggest, she would have to probably report something at least once a month, if not once a week.  On the other hand, Snowflakes cry out at the slightest, often most unintentional, slight. I know someone else who was going into a lunch meeting with Millennials and as the meeting was starting he said “I should have ordered a salad. I need to lose weight.” As the meeting closed, a young lady pulled him aside scolding him, saying she was offended by his comment. He was flabbergasted.  When explained, he was inadvertently maligning fat people. So I think we can help each other. We bring the years of experience and examples to share. Millennials bring their unswerving moral centre. This could be good.