We are family…

My brief when I once wrote for someone else’s blog, was to conjure up something on family, so here is an updated/amended version…..and I’ll start off with the now getting on a bit (aren’t we all?) Motherhood Rap, just because I like its humorous realism…

I asked around for a few definitions/thoughts of what family means to people. Most people cannot quite explain but provide quotes, soundbites. Maybe that is telling us something.  They were all very different soundbites but all very appropriate in their own way, so let’s deal with them as they come. I’ve chosen three.

“Americans should be less like the Simpsons and more like the Waltons!” – George Bush

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I’m no expert on Americans but we do have this rather candy-sweet idea about families, a false notion that families are all sweetness and light; thus, we are doomed to failure in expecting family life to deliver. I used to love the Waltons, all that large family fraternity and kindness, everyone helping each other, all very polite, sweet as apple pie, having their own individual ambitions, like John Boy scribbling away in his diary to become a journalist. They all put their pyjamas on and wished each other good night. It was sweet, loving, lovely.

As one of two children, I clamoured for lots of siblings and especially wanted sisters. I felt quite hard done by merely having an older brother. Now I haven’t even got him! Maybe this is why I had five children of my own, except in my case, it was nothing like the Waltons: rather a never-ending round of laundry and cooking, taxi-driving and money-lending, fearsome tiredness, and a constant melee of argument and noise; it felt rather like being invaded by aliens who play Call of Duty. That said, this astonishing array of personalities who somehow all emanated from the same gene pool, are also there for each other when the chips are down and have all grown to be fine adults (well, one is nearly there).

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Yes, we’re more like the Simpsons, though I’m not sure I’d quite call us dysfunctional.

That said, with the oldest at  28 and the youngest at 17, the thoughts that they would all provide company for each other and share interests were quickly laid to rest. Clothes were rarely handed down as they all developed different tastes and body shapes/sizes. And while one went for non-stop horse riding, the others did ballet, or football or drumming or guitar – and then moved on to the next thing, as my hard-earned bank balance depleted by the day. They all had different friends, most of whom seemed to ‘live’ at our house at some stage or other, and they all liked different foods. They made me financially much poorer, though as people always tell me – “you are sooooo lucky, you are blessed”  emotionally richer. 

In my bid to cater for different personalities and preferences, while still working and remaining that dream character ‘my own person,’ I spent most evenings in a daze when they were young. R & R to me was locking the bathroom door with a hot tap and a book – and sometimes a glass of wine – though even then they’d hammer on it asking me things – and still do. Or they’d shove notes under the door! Early mornings became my bastion of solitude, my precious ‘me time’. And still are. At least when they are young they go to bed at a reasonable hour, but as they grew older ones stayed up later and the younger one got up earlier…..stuffed at both ends!

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way ” –  opening line of Anna Karenina

The families one always finds interesting, or the ones people talk about, the ones who are seemingly unhappy. This rather fits in with the Waltons. We all have this idea of the sanctity of family life, so watch in appalled horror when some level of conflict or unhappiness unfolds. We are raised, after all, to marry and have children, and to assume that this is what we should all aspire to – and indeed enjoy. Some people hide the conflict really well; for example, they practise passive-aggressive indifference instead.

Reality is, of course, that it doesn’t always work, that long-term fidelity, children, financial struggle and competing demands, even civil conversation, are a strain on most people. So, happy families are alike in the sense that they have developed workable strategies to deal with the rubbish times (and there are plenty of them for most of us if we’re honest).Unhappy families are basically the ones who can’t manage that at a certain period of time.

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Happiness is quite dull and boring, really, especially other people’s. We all want some excitement and only have to look at newspapers to realise that the world thrives on a drama, preferably someone else’s so we can sit smugly in the fact that it hasn’t happened to us, and pontificate on how we would have handled it differently. There but the grace of, say I….

“Family … the home of all social evil, a charitable institution for comfortable women, an anchorage for house-fathers, and a hell for children” – Strindberg

Goodness, well this one is quite strong, isn’t it? As a teenager, I rather liked Strindberg’s idea that life on earth was hell and that we must suffer to achieve ‘salvation’. Well, I was less keen on the second half, but my thinking was that humanity was doomed to an eternal frustration of dissatisfaction. Everywhere I looked, people seemed, while not exactly miserable, discontented. Always striving for what they couldn’t have, whether it was materialistic yearnings or something else. They bought more, they grew less contented.

Not sure I even know what this quote means but I do know that Stringberg was fairly anti-family. Certainly, there is much that is uncomfortable about family life. For example, as a feminist, I have many qualms about the sexist division of labour I seem to easily fall into, as do the rest of us. The wearing of a ring, the ‘giving away’ of a bride, the name change, and the general unceasing demands of it all tend to make me feel queasy.

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Strindberg seems a bit harsh on us women because I reckon family life is hardest for us; we get the rubbish jobs like constant housework. These days, we are not ‘charitably’ kept in comfort to raise children (well, maybe some are, I wasn’t) but we are raising children whilst being simultaneously out in the workplace, bringing home the bacon, jointly, or in many cases, on our own, because the one-parent family is the fastest growing.

Are house-fathers men who are tied to the home/role of father against their will? I don’t know but I carried out a piece of small-scale research for one of my Master’s degrees many years ago which demonstrated that professional men wanted more input into childcare though were less keen on the housework, and the women wanted the same. So, lots of playing and quality time with their children required by both sexes, but no one to clean the loo. You can see the beginnings of dissatisfaction creeping in……because ultimately someone has to clean that toilet!

Children were perceived as a reward for marriage or long-term commitment, housework was a punishment.

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Bad Parenting?

Problem is, we all have this media-led idea that our homes should look like a magazine spread, that untidiness, grime and mess is a sign of bad parenting. It isn’t, and men (sexism alert) generally don’t notice. It is largely a woman thing…..and we get brassed off about it. We have to remember we do not live in ‘House Beautiful’ but actually, we get dirty and messy, sweaty and bloody. That’s the reality. And it’s good, shows we’re alive, not disinfected.

Hell for children? I don’t know but I have been alarmed by the numbers of young teenage women I meet who are on anti-depressants, self-harming, anorexic and involved in other self-damaging behaviours. Also, the numbers of young males who seem to have no function, aspiration, motivation or role. We can’t blame the family for everything but significant others must play a part, along with other social structures like unemployment and media.

My husband tells me that marriage is economically the most efficient way to raise children. One home is cheaper than two and the work can be shared to some extent. I guess if we view the family as an economic institution, then that makes sense, though what happens when the children have grown and flown? Oh yes, we get the ageing parents to look after and pay for…and start all over again!

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Happy, ready or not!

Now this is interesting…because we all want to be happy, right? On top of the world? And if you’re not tapping your feet or dancing to this link, then you’re in need of some serious assistance…

Happiness (according to an online dictionary, so it must be true) is:

Feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.

Having a sense of confidence in or satisfaction with (a person, arrangement, or situation).

This may explain where I’m going wrong in life because I always thought that happy required more than simply being ‘satisfied’.people-2567915__340

At university, friends and I would sit around for hours into the night discussing the meaning of life, assuming that meaning meant happiness.  

Not sure if we ever reached any conclusions but we enjoyed the conversations.

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It must still go on but I rarely hear younger people questioning it; perhaps they are too busy enjoying the hedonistic mindfulness of life  I do hear plenty of middle years people asking: ‘is this all there is?’ which seems like an extension of the same idea they tackled when younger. Maybe it is a generational thing?

So, is this it? And what is the meaning of life? (We maybe need to address these before happiness even enters the equation).

I still don’t know the answer to the latter and I suspect the answer to the former is ‘yes’ unless one is prepared to change – and that’s loaded and difficult because change requires an admission that something is not quite right and requires action – eek, scary proactive, disruptive, disturbing stuff…

Is this it? implies a sense of dissatisfaction, unhappiness or just a general grudging acceptance of the ‘ok, but nothing special’ situation. It is actually what most people survive on, on a daily basis.

But, is all this quest for meaning – and even happiness – merely setting ourselves up for failure and frustration? Maybe gratitude, thankfulness and acceptance would make us more contented?

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Try Mindfulness

It’s one of those words that we are all using right now. Should we simply be living in the moment and developing ‘mindfulness’, not looking back, nor forward, for life’s satisfaction? Love life, live in the now, love where you live, what you have, stop wanting and yearning…all very mindful…

Mindfulness is hot stuff in pop psychology at the moment and draws from eastern philosophies such as Buddhism, Yoga, and Taoism. It involves paying attention to the here and now, embracing the moment with interest, receptivity and openness, in a non-judgemental way. It is thought to reduce stresses, so it sounds lovely. We should all be practising it.  It also rather feels like taking a tiny portion of Buddhism and doing it to death through meditation. But to reach this state of ‘nirvana’ really takes time and effort. Most of us are not easily ‘mindful’ when faced with the everyday practicalities of earning a crust and getting through the day-to-day.

That said, if you accept your situation and do not question it but instead embrace it, then discontent should presumably reduce. But is that happiness, or mere acceptance? Because acceptance seems a long way from happiness, and even from meaning.

Mid-Life Crisis?

Or is all this concern with ‘happiness’ merely mid-life crisis? A mid-life crisis was a term coined by Canadian psychoanalyst, Elliot Jaques, back in 1965; the stereotype is that it mainly affects men who suddenly yearn for women in short skirts while driving fast cars; women suddenly wish to be free of their shackles. Midlife, Jaques reckoned, is the time when adults realise they are no longer invincible and that their own mortality is kicking in. Time is running out, in other words, so if you’ve not cracked ‘the meaning of life’ or at least a semblance of ‘happiness’ by now, then panic (understandably) starts to kick in.

How to find out more? Try Logotherapy…

Well, it makes sense – to me – that someone who has suffered extreme circumstances, and a threat to their very existence, must have some idea about what life means. Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist, survived life in Auschwitz, but his family sadly did not. In 1946, based on his experiences, he wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning”  thus gleaning some hope from an abysmal situation, using logotherapy.

He expressed the view that we can choose our attitude, and that resilience makes survival more likely. He felt that consciousness of responsibility kept some people alive in that concentration camp, once the shock and hopelessness had done their worst. The basic principles of logotherapy are:

Life has meaning whatever the circumstances, even in miserable existences.

Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life.

Even in the most extreme circumstances, we have the freedom to find meaning (but not fulfilment or happiness) in what we do, and what we experience. I rather like this one because regardless of anyone else, we choose how to feel.

Happiness here becomes secondary to meaning. Happiness, he felt, was not something that could be pursued; it must ensue. In essence, there must be a reason for it to happen. But to some extent, he is focusing on what we would today call mindfulness, living in the present moment. Seeking out happiness doesn’t guarantee great results for there are no guarantees for the future.

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Is the ‘meaning of life’ the wrong question?

Philosopher, Julian Baggini, says that we will never get a sensible answer to the ‘meaning of life’ question because it is not a sensible question. It needs some deconstructing. Bear in mind that this quote is from 2004, but Baggini says:

“I never thought I would say this, but in this very particular sense, life is like a Celine Dion concert: if we want to know why we are here, we can look backwards or forwards, and the answers we get, or fail to get, are very different and satisfy different needs.”

Why ARE We Here? Why Not?

A quick trawl of Google shows that 4 out of 10 Americans either feel they have no life purpose or feel neutral. They feel “there must be more to life than this” whatever this is. They appear to be seeking happiness or meaning; either will do.

According to evolutionary theorists, happiness is apparently about drive reduction or maybe a better term would be drive fulfilment. This maybe explains why a trip to the beach makes my dogs unashamedly happy. They run, fetch a ball and play = happiness. Simple.

So, if we humans work out what drives us (and that may be individual) then perhaps drive fulfilment is the answer (assuming it isn’t just out and out hedonism again).

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Friendship

Happy!

Now, some people feel that happiness is found in community-spiritedness, altruism, and I’ve bought into that,  many times, yet investing in ‘the bigger picture’  apparently tends to cause more stress and anxiety. Doing things for others does not provide that meaning that we’d like to think it does. Probably because it gives us less time to focus on our own needs.

Having children is a good example of this. Harvard psychologist and world expert on ‘affective forecasting’  (predicting one’s future emotional state) Daniel Gilbert, apparently uncovered that most parents are happier when watching TV or going for a run, rather than interacting with their children, perceived as most definitely ‘not fun’. Shocking though this is,  I can see where he is coming from….

Let’s face it, watching your child do averagely at sport, playing musical bumps at a party, murdering a musical instrument, or acting in a nativity play may be all kinds of things, but ‘fun’ it most generally is not.

So after that little journey of exploration, I’m none the wiser about meaning, mindfulness, or happiness. And probably thus no nearer to achieving any of it. However, I feel that good relationships with others come into it, through meaningful friendship and interaction. 300 Facebook friends do not make us happy. 4 or 5 real friends definitely add to the capacity for it. 

However, as Baggini says:

“Something only seems to be missing because you’re expecting much more”

which takes me back to the idea I had as a teenager that life on earth was hell because people were doomed to a sense of always wanting more or different, life consists of dissatisfaction. Maybe if we can all be satisfied with less, it will indeed be more.

Or just maybe reincarnating as a dog is the answer?

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Why did I learn to read and write?

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I came across a wonderful quote some years ago, which was this:

Childbirth may shred up your vagina big time, leaving you with a new open-plan living space I like to call a VAGASS, but at least it’s not boring. At least childbirth doesn’t get you wondering why the f*ck you bothered learning to read and write in the first place. Unlike housework.

Every time I do housework, I think of it, or rather the bit about why did I learn to read and write, let alone engage in professional training and higher education, to do this?

The older I get, the more irritated I become doing housework; it feels like such as waste of life, and yet, I don’t much like dirt and mess either.

What is the answer?

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Writing for the joy of it…

woman-2937201_960_720In writing groups, there is often an assumption that everyone else has their sh*t together and is much further along the trail to success than you are. Success seems to equate to being published.

So it was wonderful to read an article by Karon Alderman in Mslexia. Karon teaches English to adults and is training to be a dyslexia specialist (both laudable activities in themselves). She also writes novels. Except, none of her novels has been published, and her friends cannot understand why she spends so much time and effort working on them for…’nothing’…

There’s something non-writers need to understand about writers. Writing is never for nothing. Writing is compulsive. You derive pleasure and deep satisfaction from it.

Karon makes a fair few honest points in her article:

  1. Sometimes we simply do things because we can. Climb mountains, go surfing, write stories or articles, paint pictures. Many people in our population are now literate. What an utter delight to be able to read and write.
  2. Most writers have portfolio careers. Few can live on the proceeds of their writing alone. The path to writing is not linear.
  3. Can you call yourself a writer if you have not been published? Yes, of course. Just as you are a musician if you play the flute for fun. It is the process, not the product that counts.
  4. We all have other commitments, so writing fits in. It can be a fine hobby. Being a part-time nurse doesn’t make you any less a nurse. Part-time writer likewise.
  5. If writing for no reason other than enjoyment or personal catharsis has no point, why do anything at all? Most of life is pretty pointless if you remove duty and pleasure from it.
  6. Try writing because you can. Enjoy the process. It’s great to be read and to be in print, but I often write articles on my blog which are read by tens rather than hundreds – it is about the activity, creating something.
  7. If you write, you’re a writer.
  8. You could go to the gym, go shopping or watch daytime telly – or choose to write.
  9. Be it a personal diary, blog, memoir, article, or selection of stories, it all counts.
  10. Do join a writing group because, while all its members will have different projects, you are all simply wanting to write.

Thanks to Karon for her reminder that writing is not just about results. People keep asking when my current book will be ready. The answer is when it is done. I am enjoying the research and the writing/editing process; when I stop enjoying it or can do no more, then it will be ready to consider publication. Perhaps.

Evening writing group

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Hard at their writing challenge…Bude Writing Group

Following the success of the first two writing groups in Bude, and with the advent of spring, an evening group is being considered, subject to demand. This would be on Tuesday evenings – 5.45 – 7.45 pm at the Wharf Studio. If anyone is interested please email Dawn at budeandbeyond@gmail.com

I love spending time with my groups of writers, my aspiring authors. They are so talented and full of ideas, eager to learn, willing to try things, and can also be great fun. It’s a great way to spend two hours.

Classes are kept at a very affordable £7 per session (equal to £3.50 an hour). That’s as cheap as I can go to cover costs but my aim is to teach and facilitate.

My credentials: a published author past and present, working on a book, previously a freelance feature writer for national magazines, and publisher of Bude & Beyond hyperlocal website. I am also a qualified teacher with a good deal of experience in teaching and supporting adults. Among others, I have a first class degree in literature.

If you can’t attend but still want to learn, consider my online writing group where all work and feedback is completed via your computer. Details here.

 

The Yeats Sisters – at best tolerated but often derided

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Lily Yeats

A pillar of the literary establishment of both England and Ireland, William Butler Yeats was considered one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. In 1923, he received the Nobel Prize for literature. It was only through researching tarot artist, Pamela Colman Smith, who seemed to think William was a tad arrogant but also quite liked him, but who was also friends with his sister, Lily, that I felt compelled to look more closely at the Yeats family background.

More reading is needed but I happened upon a gem by Joan Hardwick, called The Yeats Sisters. William had an Expressionist artist brother, Jack, and two sisters Susan (Lily) and Elizabeth (Lolly); their respective dates were 1866-1949 and 1868-1940. On reading of their lives and rivalries, it seemed that the whole Yeats family was, for a period of time, sustained by the earnings of the embroiderer, Lily (who worked for May Morris) and the teaching of Lolly, who gave lessons in painting. As usual, the women were hidden from history. Most people, myself included before reading this book, would have had no real clue about the Yeats sisters.

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Lolly painted by her father

Their father, John Butler Yeats, was a barrister who gave up the lure of the law to be a painter. He was a considerable portraitist, but ill-disciplined, something of a dilettante, a spender, and terrible at deadlines, so you can guess the outcome. He married Susan Pollexfen at Sligo. John was her brother’s dazzling friend who, on the eve of their wedding wrote:

… I love you so much that I would like to share every mood with you. And to have nothing secret from your quick strength and common sense — you are more a man than a woman. Only I hope you won’t henpeck me. And make me withdraw from the intimacy of all people who are not acceptable to your ladyship. You are fond of the Exercise of power and authority in which I quite agree & which bodes ill to my freedom. I shall be afraid to ask anybody to the house without first asking your permission and if I do how cross you’ll be with your head thrown back. Your utterance short and abrupt, your dress rustling angrily. The storeroom key grating harshly and sharply in the lock. How my spirits will sink. And how uncomfortable the unfortunate guest will be. And what a milksop I’ll be thought and what a tyrant you’ll be thought and how you’ll be dreaded accordingly. How my poor sisters will tremble at your frown and how we shall make common cause together.

It was pretty much all blarney. Susan loved her life at Sligo. On her husband’s whim, she was removed and exiled from it to bohemian artistic society in London. The family spent many years in poverty, living on borrowed money from Susan’s family. Her miserable lifestyle took its toll as she became increasingly withdrawn, the family invalid, later cruelly struck by strokes. She had fallen into depression while her husband wrote:

If I showed her my real thoughts she became quite silent for days, though inwardly furious.

She was resentful and slept a lot, mainly attributed to the Pollexfen curse of ‘madness’ which seemed to be a way of deriding anyone who did not fit some norm. From a domineering father to a distant and erratic husband meant that Yeats family life was far from happy. Susan Yeats died at 59, miserable and dulled by her marriage following 6 children in ten years and two strokes from the age of 47. Yet, all of her children were in some way remarkable; perhaps spurred on by hardship.

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Only just prior to his death did john Yeats acknowledge the work of the two spinster sisters he fathered:

Lily working all day at the Morrises, and Lolly dashing about giving lectures on picture painting and earning close on 300 pounds a year, and one year more than 300, while both gave all their earnings to the house. And besides all this work, of course, they did the housework and had to contrive things and see to things for their invalid mother – and all this while quite young girls … They paid the price of having a father who did not earn enough.

The sisters never got on. Yet, between them, they ran a printing press and a workshop. William tolerated and at times liked Lily but was exasperated by Lolly. Jack kept his distance from them all and John moved to New York where he later died. What is sad is to read of Lolly, who was liked and admired by many people in the outside world but detested by her own family, deplored for her individuality, her independence, and her energy. It was her nervous mannerisms which perhaps irked them most. Languid Lily was more deferential, the kind of woman men found easier to ignore, despite her many health issues.

In middle/older age, Lolly was treated with terrible unkindness by all the others, encouraged to be on her own at night, rather than engaging in family life, and constantly assured that she was going quite mad. It’s a shocking tale, quite cruel, described by Hardwick as a time when attempts at female self-determination were at best tolerated, and more often derided. The women impressed me, especially Lolly, who had no support from anywhere much along the way!

Lolly died in 1940, followed nine years later by Lily. In death, as in life, they were not to be parted. They share a grave by the church of St Nahi in Dundrum. Perhaps they are hating each other in heaven!

Marcia

In the 1990s, I co-authored a book on infertility and IVF, a tad ironic given my tendency to produce many children. Fertility was never an issue for me, but it was for others I knew, and most importantly, I could totally understand the burning desire for a child, as I’d been there, I’d felt it. More than once! I changed from someone who had never wanted children, who marched for abortion rights for women (I still would) and to whom sterilisation sounded like a healthy option, to someone I didn’t recognise, who had her reproductive light switched on in her late twenties. And when it switched on, it was enough to power the Blackpool illuminations in its intensity. It didn’t switch off again until my 40s. 

So, yes, I got that bit of the situation – that overwhelming, desperate desire to have a baby.

Visiting couples to interviews for the book (and a few magazine articles to boot) was an education in itself; they were shockingly frank and honest. I stayed with one couple for most of the day. She talked, he talked, they talked, they argued, he made me lunch (cheese on toast – delish) and we all talked some more.  Little did I realise beforehand what a tough situation the whole IVF process was. I met women desperate for babies, and men who felt used and wanted only for their sperm.

Writing the book now, I’d do it differently, because none of this humanity really came across, yet it is the most amazing part of it all.

At that time, I was lucky to live not too far from Oldham, where I interviewed one of the ‘IVF pioneers’, a proud lady called Marcia. She never did have a child and the pain was still raw many years on. IVF had to start somewhere, and Oldham was the place where women were so desperate for a child that they allowed themselves to effectively be experimented on. 

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The birth of IVF was popularly seen as the landmark so-called test-tube birth of Louise Brown in 1978, which brought the whole IVF process to people’s attention.  However, research was ongoing well before then, using human guinea pigs. Prior to the dramatic medical breakthrough by the pioneers, Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe, couples suffering infertility had little hope of satisfactory treatment. Virtually all investigation centred on the woman (sperm count was rarely checked) and then mainly consisted of laparotomy (later laparoscopy) and D & C. (dilation and curettage). If a patient, like the mother of Louise Brown, had no fallopian tubes or they were blocked, then adoption was probably the only path open to her.

So, experimental though it was, ‘breakthrough’ is not too strong a word for the day when Steptoe secured an egg from the ovary of Lesley Brown, and Edwards managed to use her husband’s sperm to fertilise it in the laboratory. Louise arrived nine months later on 26th July, delivered by Caesarean section. It all sounded so easy, but it wasn’t and even today, IVF still has a high failure rate. The birth of Louise Brown was the result of ten years of persevering research and some trial and error. Lesley Brown was a willing guinea pig, and rights to her story went for an alleged £300,000. IVF raised lots of ethical issues in those early days: selling one’s story, cloning, and what to do with frozen eggs which were unwanted. Ann Oakley raised the feminist point that IVF allowed men to achieve certainty and proof of fatherhood.

Enter Marcia.  Marcia was one of Mr Steptoe’s experiments. It was a while until she felt able to really talk, and throughout the interview, she was very emotionally contained. It seemed she needed to be, as tears brimmed just below the surface. She explained:

He suggested I was put with his ‘special ladies’. His team tested my husband’s sperm; there was no problem with that. I was given 96 tablets and four injections per month to stimulate my egg production after a laparoscopy couldn’t find anything wrong with me.

Mr Steptoe was a very fatherly man, patient and understanding. He was aware of the mental pain that infertile women suffered, and was sympathetic. He was wonderful. Looking back, it seemed that being a pioneer was my job. We offered ourselves, we ladies, hoping it might work for one of us. I was in a group of six. He just said he was going to try something different with us. Slowly, it dawned on me what he was saying. I was excited but felt very safe; I knew he wouldn’t do anything to harm me, so I had absolute confidence and trust. I was a bit bothered about what would happen, as we were given very little information. I didn’t ask. You didn’t in those days. I was rather in awe of him; although unassuming, he was charismatic.

Marcia was given tablets to take every month. She didn’t know what for. She also had to save all her urine.

I had to take the container everywhere – work, shopping – and dropped it off each day at the cottage hospital. I don’t know what they did with it. Mr Steptoe sent for me three days before I went into the hospital. I had to take three tablets and felt very sick. My bag was always at the ready to go in. I had lots of blood tests. The technician who was taking the blood was very rough  – he wiggled the needle in the vein. It upset me and I fainted and threatened to tell Mr Steptoe. I fainted again when Mr Steptoe walked into the room. when I came round, he was stroking my hair and said: “what these girlies will do to have babies.” When I stirred, he moved away and was back to normal.

I went to the theatre and they took two eggs from me. My husband gave a sperm sample. Robert Edwards was there. Then my legs were put in stirrups and the fertilised eggs were put back inside with a catheter-type thing. It was physically uncomfortable. I had to stay for 24 hours with my legs slightly raised. The timing was very important.

Two weeks later, I had my period. I was devastated, crying and crying. Mr Steptoe said: “I’ll try again”. I needed time to pull myself together. We pioneers knew he was on the brink of success and it could be any one of us. He was desperately short of funding, as people accused him of playing God, so things had to be kept quiet. We were in the hospital with other people around who were dying; it was quite traumatic and we were trying to keep quiet. The nursing staff weren’t nice, but on the whole, Mr Steptoe’s team looked after us. We weren’t made to feel welcome.

When I heard about the Louise Brown success, I was so pleased he’d done it but wished it could have been me as well. He then moved to Bourn Hall, Cambridge. By then I was nearly 40 and we let it go as I had promised my husband I would.  I later discovered there was nothing in my notes regarding my IVF with Mr Steptoe – he was considered a law unto himself and he kept the notes he took privately. There were no records. This is typical. He was protective of us and didn’t want anyone to know about it. I had no regrets; I’d have regretted it if I’d not tried.

These days, no one ever mentions the pioneers – they never talk about those who made it possible for others. People maligned Steptoe because of ignorance and lack of knowledge. Dr Edwards was also very nice. I wrote to him when Mr Steptoe died. Steptoe himself called us his ‘special ladies’. You have to have a certain percentage of women who’ll have a go, and I have a bit of pride that I did something for society. It is a nice feeling that I contributed something, and I can’t speak too highly of the doctors.

Marcia is right that the pioneers are never mentioned but now it is also alarming that so little information was given to women prepared to try this experimental treatment, that they were purposefully kept uninformed.

She was a patient in the days when doctors were not questioned and even husbands and wives didn’t fully discuss such things. But at the end of the day, she was an experimental guinea pig.

Patrick_Steptoe

Now, that would at least merit an explanation.

Writing does not require paraphernalia

Reading a biography of the Yeats sisters, who struggled on in a man’s world, a comment about Lolly Yeats caught my attention, serving as a reminder of something incredibly simple:

To her, writing did not require paraphernalia. She could do it anywhere, anytime. All she needed was a pen and paper. 

Comparing it to most creative pursuits, writing is labour rather than materials intensive.  Sometimes we forget this.

Writing. You can, and must, do it anywhere.

Image Credit: The Institute of Cancer Research

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