Only 1 in 4 girls call themselves ‘happy’ – so what are we doing wrong?

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Image credit: Pixabay

I don’t take a paper.

I mean, I barely have time to read my own name on an envelope, so working through all the many articles contained in a broadsheet is a luxury belonging – for the moment, at least – to another existence, one where I’m not permanently covered in PVA glue.

(Also – the Internet. Free news stories at your fingertips.)

But if I did get a paper, it would be The Guardian. (Ooh, I can feel you judging me already! Intellectual middle-class elite, as Stewart Lee would say – and I, of course, would howl with laughter whenever he did because there’s no point denying it – and anyway, as an Oxbridge-educated middle-class person, surely he’s pretty safely in this demographic too?)

ANYWAYS.

I had some glass to wrap, so thought I’d buy me a paper, and thought it should be The Guardian since if I found myself with any spare time I might prefer reading a few of its words over, say, The Yorkshire Herald. (Not knocking the latter – I’m sure it’s an excellent read. It’s just – you know – time.)

It was one of the front page stories, though, that sealed the deal:

“Sharp fall in number of girls who feel happy”(The Guardian, 19.09.18)

You can read the full story here – but, to summarise, a recent study has found that only one in four girls aged 7-21 describe themselves as ‘very happy’.

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I asked my daughter, barely two weeks into this age bracket, whether she felt happy. “What – now?” she replied.

“Now, yes – but more generally too. In life. Do you feel happy?”

“Yes.”

“Honestly?”

“Yes.”

“You’d tell me if you didn’t, right?”

“Look at my colour-change sequin armband, it’s so cool!”

It’s fair to say I don’t have a lot of ‘deep’ conversations with my daughter, whose idea of a disaster is forgetting to bring her unicorn squishy to bed.

Of course I was mildly relieved by her answer, but I’m not resting on my laurels and giving myself a parenting trophy just yet – she still has adolescence and young adulthood to come, and the wheels may yet come unstuck.

Is there anything I can do, as a mum, to prevent this?

To answer, I need to go back a few stages and ask why this story bothers me so much. Why do I care that lots of girls are unhappy?

Primarily because it feels like feminism is failing.

We are trying so hard to ensure girls are able to access what boys can in terms of opportunities, jobs and family life, and yet we’re failing to enable them to access lives which are happy, content, low in stress and enjoyable. Does this seem slightly off-balance to you?

The media thinks people like me, who choose to stay at home for their children’s preschool years, are a failure. The statistics say that I’m a bad example to my daughter, who is less likely to have a well-paid job, and more likely to make the same waywardly irresponsible decision I’ve done, if she ever has kids.

I disagree. Or maybe I agree, but I don’t think it matters. What’s the good in having a well-paid job if you’re not happy? What’s the good in a glittering career if your mental health is in a poor state?

I mean, you can do both, right? It is possible to be simultaneously successful and happy. And having a stay-at-home parent is by no means a guarantee of future happiness. But if such a high number of the 7-21 age group are describing themselves as ‘unhappy’, I’d wager that a decent proportion of the 21-35 age group are struggling too – and that means we need to rethink some of the identity information we’re feeding to our daughters.

I’d love my daughter to do well professionally – and, trust me, I’ll be her biggest cheerleader in this – but at the expense of her happiness? Not a chance. We need to hear more feminists validating girls simply for being who they are, not endlessly needing to achieve more than the generation before them.

The two major reasons girls cited for their unhappiness were exams and social media.

Let’s look at exams first. Please forgive me for the gender generalisations – I know this doesn’t apply to all girls, everywhere – but, on the whole, girls get more anxious, care more what others think, and take what others say more to heart than the boys around them.

As I said – not every girl is like this, but then we’re not talking every girl – we’re talking about 75%, so hear me out.

Teenage girls don’t need to be told how important their exams are – they’re already far too aware. Every time you mention a deadline or an exam, they take it on board and their stress goes up a notch.

Teenage boys, on the other hand, could be repeatedly told how much work they still needed to complete, and the short time frame they had in which to do it – and still they would choose video games over coursework. Every time. They’re just not that fussed – and, at this age at least, they don’t tend to have as much personal motivation as girls.

I’ll repeat my caveat: this is not all teenage boys. But, when I was teaching, this described a majority of the boys in my classes.

And there’s another aspect at play. I wonder whether girls are a little more conditioned to work hard at school, because we’ve grown up being told to believe in ourselves, yet aware of a history which has trodden us down, dismissed our views, and diminished our achievements?

Deep-down, we feel like the underlings (even though we know we’re not), and that gives us a drive – sometimes a desperation – to put our all into school exams.

Again, this isn’t true for every girl – but I think, with hindsight, that this might have been me at school.

Girls usually outperform boys in school exams – but it’s boys who end up with the higher-paid jobs in adulthood. So clearly school exam success is not an indicator of future life success. There are multiple factors, many circumstantial, that propel someone into a well-paid or high-level job.

Most girls won’t be told this, though. Our high level of personal motivation, as well as our ability to enjoy intrinsic rewards, mean that we want to do well for ourselves – not just for the glitzy job waiting for us in our 20s.

The other chief cause of girls’ increasing unhappiness is social media. As the report says, “Relationships are an essential element of contentment and it may be no coincidence that 10 years ago, girls of all ages were socialising more and comparing their lives online less”.

If you want a statistic to go with that, in 2009 69% of girls met up with their friends at each others’ homes, compared with just 21% in 2018.

It’s not rocket science, is it? If you replace real, deep, committed, do-anything-for-each-other friendships with shallow, image-based liaisons through Instagram and Facebook, who are you going to unwind with, offload onto, rant at? Pent-up feelings will just increase your anxiety and stress, and decrease your overall contentment and happiness.

So, the million dollar question – can we do anything about this?

I don’t speak as one experienced in the ways of hormonal daughters, but – never one to withhold my opinion when there’s an opportunity to inflict it upon others – here are some thoughts anyway. Please add yours in the comments.

Encourage a healthy attitude towards exams. Offer perspective. Speak of the future. Allow adult family members and friends to share their stories of school success and failure, and how their lives have turned out positively, especially if school wasn’t always a positive experience.

Encourage hobbies and interests from a young age. It’s no good trying to persuade your 15 year old to take up judo at the start of Year 11. Start young: let your girls (and boys) explore different hobbies, so that they learn how to relax without the requirement of a screen, and also so that they know where their strengths lie, if not in academia.

Have clear boundaries for phone use/screen time. You can find ‘contracts’ all over the Internet intended for parent and son/daughter to agree and sign, regarding phone use. It’s pretty much impossible to control everything your child sees or hears online, but you can at least help them to set healthy boundaries in terms of usage so that they don’t get burned.

Make it easy for your daughter to socialise. Build friendships from birth. Teach the importance of loyalty and kindness, and how we repair friendships after disagreements (particularly important for girls). Have an open home to her friends – let her know she is always welcome to invite them round for actual, meaningful interactions.

Don’t spend so much time instilling your own dreams in your daughter that you squash her ability to develop at her own pace. We need to stop pushing our daughters towards greatness, and start spotting where they shine, where they’re happiest, and encourage them in that. We can do this from birth, and it pays dividends in the long term.

Encourage healthy body image. Let her see your own flawed body. (Sorry, no offence. But it is. And so is mine.) Talk about ‘staying healthy’ rather than ‘losing weight’. Shield her from your own obsession with image, if this is a problem area for you (or talk together about battling it).

Do things as a family. If family habits are forged early on, such as eating together, taking Saturday day trips, or playing board games, this gives your daughter a solid base from which to explore the world. Our ability to relate to others come first from our relationship with our parents, so invest your time wisely. It’s not the occasional ‘deep chats’ which build a parent-child relationship, it’s the regular hanging-out, the silly and the absurd, the laughter and the not-doing-much.

Don’t blame yourself. Exams and social media might be the biggest two factors in unhappy girls – but they’re not the only ones. And you can’t protect your daughter from everything. Neurology, friendships, school environment and many other factors can play a part in a child’s mental well-being. If your daughter is struggling, don’t beat yourself up about it – but do try and get as much professional help as you can. Brushing issues under the carpet is no place to start.

Over to you – is there anything we can do to change this ‘unhappy’ generation?

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Eleanor Oliphant, pulled pork and a sexuality conference (What I’m into – June 2018)

Books

Wow. Just wow. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine certainly lived up to its hype.

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This was our Book Club’s choice this month, and I was delighted as it’s been on my list for months. Eleanor Oliphant lives an isolated life, devoid of any meaningful relationship, hobby or interest – beyond drinking vodka on her own all weekend to get through the gap between her working weeks.

Without giving anything away (because you really do need to read this book for yourself!), it’s fairly apparent from the start that there’s something unusual about Eleanor – but what it is unfolds gradually throughout the book.

I loved the hopeful way the book ended (not to mention the exciting twist in the last few pages), and I found the whole thing immensely enjoyable – laugh-out-loud funny at times, as author Gail Honeyman captures Eleanor’s straightforward, literal thought processes perfectly.

Again, without giving too much away, I particularly enjoyed this book from an adoption perspective. Although adoption isn’t a theme in the book, the impact of trauma, neglect and abuse is explored, sometimes making for difficult reading, but always sensitively and wisely handled.

In short – read this book! Seriously one of my favourite books ever.

It didn’t take me long to finish, but everything else I started this month didn’t get finished, so you’ll just have to wait till next month for more books!

Food

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Of course there were plenty of BBQs, and general al fresco eating this month – BECAUSE EATING OUTDOORS IS SO MUCH MORE FUN AND LESS HASSLE. And because – look at the weather! Even in the North!

My personal favourite was the yummy pulled-pork recipe you see above. It’s a great one for a busy day, because it takes about 10 minutes to get all the bits together and whack in the oven – then when you get home from your busyness, you’ve got a fabulous meal waiting for you with very little else needed except buns and coleslaw (although we did chunky chips – also easy – and some cooked veg for fussy little eaters).

And I successfully made canneloni for the very first time! I realised the problem was in the piping bag – so, in the month where I tried to reduce plastic usage by buying a shampoo bar instead of a bottle, I offset this by buying a roll of 100 disposable plastic piping bags. Eek. Sorry, world.

It did help, though. The result was amazing (this is the recipe I used). Sadly, I don’t have a pic of the finished article, so (just for evidence, so that you believe me that I actually pulled this off) here’s a pic of the cannelloni, all neatly piped and ready for some sauce, cheese and a half-hour in the oven.


Music

Not being at all gadgety or Internet-y, I was absolutely delighted to discover that Spotify was indeed as wonderful as everyone says it is. I bought a 99p 3-month trial so that I could put together a soundtrack for our Summer Fair (see below), but within an hour or listening for my own benefit, I was totally converted that THIS IS HOW I WANT TO LIVE FOREVER, THROWING OUT ALL THE CDS AND NEVER USING ANYTHING OTHER THAN DIGITAL MUSIC EVER AGAIN.

Until the hubs reminded me that our car only plays CDs. Oh well.

Through Spotify, however, I discovered Lily Allen’s latest album – I’ve kind of lost touch with her since her first album, but this one was perfectly accessible and just brilliant. I like how her music’s grown up with her, exploring different territories lyrically (divorce, being a working mum, etc.) but musically having the same quirks and emotional sweetness of her earlier stuff.

My personal favourite on the album was ‘Three’ but, honestly, there’s not really a dud song on there.

Stage and screen

download (2).jpgWell, having read it last month, our Book Club had to watch The Light between Oceans, didn’t we?! It’s good, and well worth watching – obviously not as good as the book (did I really need to say that?), predominantly because so much detail has to be left out – detail which changes how you view the secondary characters – but it’s a powerful film none-the-less.

download (3).jpgWe finished the UK House of Cards (the old one), and, much as I’d enjoyed the three series, I was hugely disappointed by the finale, which felt like a cop-out along the lines of “…and then they woke up to discover it had all been a dream”. I really felt that, with the clever plots and dialogue thus far, the writers could have come up with something better. Anyone seen it/share my views?! Feel like I’m kind of on my own here in 1990s British drama territory.

Articles

Some great stuff this month!

I’ve started to think a bit more about transgender and sexuality issues (and no, this is not my way of announcing my impending transition).

I absolutely loved Living Out’s Identity conference (see below), and interestingly I’ve started to find a few non-religious voices speaking out against the ease of gender transition (not against it per se, but concerned particularly for under 18s, and their vulnerability when it comes to their gender, and decisions which could have an impact they’re not expecting). This article is long but well worth a read – it’s one mother’s story of her daughter’s desire to transition.

Not on my watch is Krish Kandiah at his best, using Fathers’ Day to ask men whether they’ll step up to the challenge of caring for the most vulnerable. Adoption and fostering are two ways to do this, obviously, but they’re not the only ways. Our society has one particular definition of ‘real men’, but the Bible may be calling you guys to something different…take a read!

This article, about some fiery female missionaries who were practising Christian feminism way before the #metoo movement, was fascinating.

How disability makes a church strong spoke right to my heart about how vital inclusivity and diversity are to our church communities. I’m becoming so passionate about this!

And I’m really enjoying Abby King’s blog at the moment. She’s a fellow ACW member and writes a really thought-provoking devotional each week. I’m finding it so relevant and considered. Have a read of Why it helps to know what you really want.

On the blog

I was privileged to review The Mermaid who couldn’t, a fantastic book aimed at adopted children.

For Fathers’ Day, I published two pieces: some musings on the idea of having no father, and a tribute to my husband, who’s a wonderful father to our four kids.

In response to 5 Valuable Work Lessons from Maternity Leave which I mentioned last month, I wrote about five valuable work lessons I’d learnt from my nearly nine-year ‘maternity leave’…

To celebrate National Writing Day last week, I took up this writing challenge (“I feel most free when…”) – and then shared a few thoughts having watched the wonderfully thought-provoking ‘Gone Fishing’, featuring Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer.

Elsewhere

Whilst I still feel like a blog novice (after six years?! How can that be?), people have started to ask my advice when thinking about starting their own blogs. So I put a few thoughts down in my ACW More than Writers blog this month: “Why and how should I start a blog?” Do have a look if you’re in this position.

Other

* I went to the beautiful wedding of a lovely new friend – it was down-to-earth, simple, and God-centred.

* We finally found a Fathers’ Day gift for DD that he liked and didn’t complain about (he doesn’t like ‘commercial festivals’ and never knows what he wants for the non-commercial ones):

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God bless Pinterest.

* I went to watch my boy play cricket for his school (having no idea whether he knew the rules or not). It was a lovely, relaxed tournament for Years 3&4, with the Years 5&6 matches clearly taking on a bit more formality (read: they had rules). Our school did really well, winning our group and progressing to the semi-final where I think we came 3rd (?). Anyway, it was a great achievement for a school which doesn’t have loads of kids paying for additional sports coaching. We were all very proud!

* We had our school Summer Fair! Anyone who’s been following this blog for a while will know what a big deal this is – our PTA only started last year, and this is our second Summer Fair. We were aiming to improve on last year’s £1000 profit by a couple of hundred, but I was sceptical about actually reaching it. In actual fact, we made over £1400 – smashed it!! It was also just such a lovely afternoon, with great weather, and a brilliant atmosphere amongst all the families who came.

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* The most exciting thing for me this month – and possibly this year (you can tell I don’t get out much) – was a child-free 24-hour trip to London with my good friend Izzy to hear Tim and Kathy Keller speak on Identity and Sexuality. Oh my goodness, they were superb! The first hour was like an undergraduate Sociology lecture – the second was a brilliantly packed sermon. After lunch Kathy stormed it with some practical guidance for churches, then there was a brilliant panel made up of the Kellers and a couple of LGBQTI+ Christians. I couldn’t type my notes fast enough! I hope to be able to share a few thoughts with you on this blog over the next month or two…let me know if you’d be interested.

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Linking up, as always, with the lovely Leigh Kramer’s ‘What I’m into’ blog posts. Do check them out – you may discover a fantastic new blogger!

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can i be a feminist and a stay-at-home mum?

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Image credit: Pixabay

I’ll be honest: feminism didn’t really play a major part in my life until recently.

I’ve been pretty fortunate not to have known any gender-related obstacles at work or at home. I haven’t suffered abuse or harassment at the hands of men, nor have I been prevented from doing anything I wanted to do because of being a woman. I’m one of the lucky few for whom the battles and struggles of previous generations of women have paid off. It’s not that I was oblivious to the ongoing need to fight for gender equality the world over but, as for my own battles, they’d already been fought, and won.

So perhaps it’s interesting, or perhaps it’s unsurprising, that I’ve been forced to think about feminism a whole lot more since I chose, in 2009, to take on a role which for centuries women were obliged to take, with no alternative option available to them: that of the stay-at-home-mum.

Over the last 8 years, I’ve seen a lot of friends become mothers, and many of them have felt torn between family and work – it’s such a strong compulsion to want to be excellent at both that the tension is nearly tangible.

So, if you’re reading this in the middle of the night whilst feeding your baby, or in a stolen moment between building Duplo towers and playing yet another Orchard Toys game, and you’re wondering where your feminist values have gone and what’s happened to your brain – this is for you.

Essentially I think we emphasise the wrong aspects of feminism.

Firstly, feminism is often associated with the need for women to be climbing the career ladder, excelling in whichever field they’ve chosen – so it’s no wonder that when we stop and have kids, take time out, or take a lower-paid job so that we can be around for their needs, we feel like we’ve failed as women. We have been culturally-conditioned into thinking this is largely what feminism is about, because one aspect of feminist campaigning in the West is, quite rightly, the campaign for equal pay and opportunities in the workplace. But this is just ONE aspect. And, really, it is about women who WANT to become top in their business being able to do so. It is not about forcing miserable women into a job they don’t want.

But of course what if you WANT to become top in your area of expertise, but have sacrificed this in order to devote yourself and your talents to your family? How do you deal with this tension? Well it would take many more blog posts to deal with this issue, but – for the moment – let me suggest that in a 40-year working life, there may well be time to do both. And, regardless of whether there is or not, perhaps we need to remember the importance of those early years in a child’s life, and the incredibly challenging job of nurturing a small child, meeting her needs and helping to regulate her emotions until she can do it for herself. (Why Love Matters, by Sue Gerhardt, goes into much more depth about the potential impact that a rocky start to life can have later on. I highly recommend it!)

Leading on from this, feminism is often misrepresented as shunning the role of the mother. Again, there’s a misunderstanding here. Should fathers be encouraged to see themselves as equal parents, every bit as important in their children’s lives as mothers? Absolutely they should. Should we be working to change attitudes – ours and other people’s – regarding stay-at-home-Dads, making them welcome at groups and social meet-ups? Absolutely we should. Should workplaces seek to become as family-friendly as possible, allowing Mums AND Dads the flexibility of sharing childcare? Absolutely they should!

I’m aware that there are some feminists who genuinely do not value the work of a parent. I’m a genuinely easy going person, but I’ll tell you for free: I don’t have a lot of time for these people. And that’s to put it nicely. But, on the whole, feminism supports the important job of raising the next generation – it just doesn’t believe that this job should fall exclusively to Mum. Neither do I. It just so happens, in our family, that everything works out nicely for my husband to be the full-time earner, and me to stay at home with the kids. He’s happy and I’m happy.

Stay-at-home-mums (and their partners) can practise feminism in the way they co-parent. I make lots of parenting decisions each day without consulting my husband, because if I had to call him every time I was facing the dilemma of what to serve for lunch, or whether my son should wear red or blue trousers today, neither of us would get anything done. But the longer-term decisions, the ones we have the luxury of pondering for a few days or weeks – those are ones we make together.

In addition, for the hours he’s around, my husband is a proactive, fully-involved parent and family member. He does stuff with the kids, he does housework, he researches stuff we need to buy – all the things I do solo while he’s at work. Financially, we don’t have such things as ‘his money’ and ‘my money’ – his salary, plus child benefit and working tax credits, all go into our shared account, and we’ve never even spoken about whether I’m allowed to spend this money or not, because it’s taken as read that we are a team. He earns the money, I care for the kids. To put it in crass, financial terms: if I didn’t have him, I’d be struggling to afford to raise my kids. If he didn’t have me, then he’d be paying one heck of a bill for childcare. So we are equal contributors to this family.

I am no less a feminist because I am a woman and I am the one who is at home. I am a feminist because I belong to a family in which my husband and I play equal roles. Your family maybe doesn’t look like what I’ve described above – in fact, it probably won’t, because there are as many different ways of doing family as there are families. But I hope you feel there’s a sense of equality in your family life. This is feminism – not some bizarre notion that mothers shouldn’t ever stay at home with their children.

Thirdly, feminism is about educating the next generation. And how better to do that than to take some time out to do the job yourself? Perhaps there are some nurseries out there who actively seek to raise young feminists, but it’s not something I’d expect to see on most childcare websites. As a stay-at-home parent – mum or dad – you can be responsible for imparting good moral sense to your children, which includes teaching equality.

And this isn’t just for your daughters, by the way. I’m very grateful that having a daughter has prompted me to think about these issues more – but I sure as heck don’t want my three sons growing up as misogynistic dinosaurs either. Because sexism is often about men’s attitudes, rather than women’s, it is so important that we take seriously the job of raising our little dudes to respect and honour those around them, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, or any other differentiating characteristic.

Personally, for me, I’ve found stay-at-home parenting to be a wonderful way of being able to take time over teaching these sorts of values to my children. Of course many people do this amazingly whilst working part-time and full-time, but my point isn’t to elevate one way of doing things over the other. This is written for those of you who are at home, but feeling frustrated. I want you to know that you have a unique opportunity to raise the next generation of feminists, equalists, whatever you want to call them. You may not receive pay, promotion or recognition of your work – but please know that it is vitally important to society that you do so.

Finally, feminism is for men too. Traditionally, it was a bunch of women challenging the status quo – and thank God they did. But, at its heart, feminism is a movement which preaches equality of the genders. This is something we need to pass on to both our daughters and our sons, and discussing with our other halves too, making sure that, however we divvy up the roles of bread-winning, childcare and household duties, we run households founded on equality.

As a Christian, I see this equality running throughout the Bible and, although every day is by no means a joy or an intellectual challenge, I am satisfied – for now – to pursue my role as a feminist stay-at-home with grace and determination.