09 Jul

A work in progress

I am a white, middle class, cisgendered, able-bodied, educated woman in my 50s. I’m part of some marginalised groups but I pass for a straight cis woman and feel my privilege in that; this is a position of relative power, and it is a position reflected in so much of the subject matter of my blog and my podcast, and so many of my guests. I reach out over and over again to my own community, and it’s time to stretch further and learn more. This is a work in progress because I am working out how to be an ally to marginalised communities, how and when to use inclusive language, and how to include one community without alienating another.

As a feminist, I’ve felt particularly challenged by the idea of transgender. I certainly started from a place of suspicion and fear, which felt deeply uncomfortable because I think of myself as a kind, inclusive sort of person, and I could see myself not being that. I couldn’t sit with this level of incongruence, and knew I had to work it out. I was confused by the loud voices on both sides of a deep and dangerous divide. It took me too long to stop listening and start learning. I’m going to list below the resources that helped me, but I want to particularly highlight two things.

Firstly a real threshold concept for me. I attended a Queer Birth Workshop, and the question was asked, what makes you a woman? How do you know you are a woman? I’ve been trying to unravel this for quite some time, having been railing against the gender binary for a decade or more, certain that I didn’t wish to be defined by my biology, or assumed to be delighted by pink unicorns. The logic in my head was that transgender must require an adeherence to strict gender norms, otherwise how could you know you were *not* one thing but another? Letting go of this logic has been massively helpful. During the Queer Birth Workshop, AJ Silver answered their own question: you know it in every fibre of your being. There’s my lightbulb. All the things I had been reading and listening to suddenly made sense. Every fibre of your being. Transwomen are people who feel like a woman in every fibre of their being, and my feminist objections are simply no longer valid. I was recently asked, how can someone in a male body understand what it feels like to be a woman? This too is something I struggled to understand: how can you know what it feels like to be a woman if you’ve never had your period start just before a PE lesson? If you’ve never walked home in the dark with your keys in your hand in case of attack? If you’ve never experienced the pure joy of discovering that a dress has pockets. There is more than one way to be a woman, and none of us gets to decide that our own experience is the defining one.

This came alongside a second thing which was less of an instant epiphany and more of a slow dawning. In another workshop (this one on neurodiversity) there was discussion of a spectrum as being not so much a scale from light to dark, but ALL the colours. No good/bad, no right/wrong, no broken/whole, but all the degrees and all the subsets of degrees and all the branches off all the branches…. this breadth and fluidity is what gender is to me, and having let go of the idea that transgender presupposes a binary either/or thing, it all just slots together.

I don’t believe that I have figured everything out and now know the answer, but I do believe that uncertainty is good for me, good for everyone really to keep on questioning and reflecting. And there isn’t one answer. There are still questions for me around things like sports where maybe the men’s/women’s model needs a rethink for our modern times. And I’m not here to try to persuade you, if your thinking is not currently aligned with mine; but I’m always willing to have a conversation with you.

When it comes to being an ally to people of colour, obviously there is less of a philosophical hoop to jump through; but there is a huge amount of work for someone like me, raised in small northern towns where there were no non-white people around me at all; I had no concept of the microaggressions and the deeply embedded structural racism that affects the way I think, the way I act, and the way I speak to people. There were two conversations I had when making Sprogcast that were particularly instructive, one with Alana Apfel and one with Mars Lord; but what I took away more than anything else was that it was on me to do the work.

My pledge is that I will never stop doing the work.

Most importantly, this needs not to be a zero sum game. At the moment it feels as though everyone has to pick a side; and ironically, using inclusive language makes some people feel excluded. This conversation has to be had, and retreating into our corners and yelling at each other will not move us forward.

Here are some resources, in no particular order:
My non-binary life (podcast)
In the darkroom, by Susan Faludi (book)
The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson (book)
Queer Birth Club: LGBT+ Competency Birth & Beyond (workshop)
Slay In Your Lane, by Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené (I read the book, but here’s a link to their podcast)
Queenie, by Candice Carty-Williams (book)
I am not your baby mother, by Candice Braithwaite (book)
Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge (book)
Feel Good (TV programme)
Small Axe (TV programme)
The Safe Zone Project (website)
Responding to JK Rowling’s Essay/Is it anti-trans? by Jammidodger (youtube video)
Meet the feminists championing trans rights (Buzzfeed article)
Seahorse (film)
Pride & Joy, A Guide for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans Parents, by Sarah & Rachel Hagger-Holt (book)
Birth work as care work, by Alana Apfel (book)
Mars Lord on Sprogcast (podcast, link to follow)
Jones E, Lattof SR, Coast E. Interventions to provide culturally-appropriate maternity care services: factors affecting implementation. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth. 2017;17(1):267 (journal article)
Pedagogy of the oppressed, by Paulo Freire (book)
Peace and Power, by Wheeler, C. E., & Chinn, P. L. (1984) (book)
Dear White People (TV programme)
Atypical (TV Programme)
Shitt’s Creek (TV Programme)
It’s A Sin (TV Programme)
Sway, by Pragya Agarwal (book)

18 Dec

Milk Machine

It makes me feel like a cow, she said.
Just to look at it now.
Its friendly pastel plastic
Fills me with dread
And I can’t get out of my head
The sound of a robot baby
Taking my milk.
It fills me with dread
When I think of the nights ahead,
The stirring and snuffling noises
That will pull me
From my warm bed;
When I think of the nights,
There’s no light
At the end
Just shattered sleep,
Shattered me,
Overwhelmed with dread,
And with longing
That somebody else
Could do this instead.
I’ll be a cow if it means
It’s not just me
Getting up in the night
To sit in the dark
And long for my bed.
I’ll be the cow,
But it fills me,
It fills me with dread.

12 Nov

Back to business as usual

Wearing many hats at the Mental Health Starts in the Womb conference

Monday It’s always an early start these days, now that my son is at secondary school and has a long walk in the mornings. I ought to appreciate the extra hour it gives me in my working day, but I’m not sure I really do. I dropped off some NCT leaflets to be added to delegate packs at the Mental Health Starts In The Womb conference I’m helping at later in the week. Then I spent two hours with my newly qualified Breastfeeding Peer Supporters, finding out what their first month of peer supporting has been like. And the evening was spent running the final session of my Essentials course with a really lovely group, who enjoyed meeting some real life new parents and their baby.

Tuesday I managed to get out for a run, which is impressive because I’m struggling to motivate myself to do that lately. A busy day at my desk with my laptop, working on various things including my presentation for the next Adult Learner study days. And another evening with an antenatal group, this time facilitating a breastfeeding session.

Wednesday In Windsor this morning for another antenatal breastfeeding session, this time with a student observer, making me highly conscious of my language! My dad called in on his way to Gatwick, and dropped off my birthday presents for later in the month, and the nicest point of the day was an hour in the pub with Pete while my son was at his karate lesson.

Thursday Slept really badly, but had to get on with things today as I’d promised to help out at the Mental Health Starts in the Womb conference. I managed the morning – checking people in, moving chairs, standing at the table giving out NCT brochures – but had to leave at lunchtime because I really couldn’t keep my eyes open. Fell asleep on the sofa.

Friday Thankfully a quiet day, empty of much ‘work’ stuff apart from cycling over to the other side of town to inspect a scout hut that we might use for NCT courses.

Saturday All day NHS antenatal course. These are once a month and seem to come round quickly. Usually an absolute blast, but I’ll be exhausted by the end of it.

Sunday Going to see Paddington II at the movies.

10 Nov

Running for President

Earlier this year, I made the decision to stand for election as president of NCT. I’m not going to pretend this decision wasn’t nudged along by colleagues; it’s not the sort of thing you could do without a lot of conversations with people you trust. The person I trust most in the world, my partner Pete, was completely on board when I put the idea to him, and that was the final deciding factor.
Read More

19 Oct

Star NCT practitioner nominated for national award

An NCT practitioner from Wokingham has been nominated for a national award for her dedication to supporting new parents in the community.

Breastfeeding Counsellor Karen Hall has been nominated for the ‘Behind The Scenes’ category in the NCT Stars Awards 2016, an event hosted by the UK’s largest charity for parents.
Karen won the regional award and has been shortlisted for the national NCT Stars Awards along with winners from other UK regions.

The national winners will be announced at a special celebration at City Hall, London on 2 November and hosted by NCT’s Chief Executive, Nick Wilkie.

Karen said: Like most NCT practitioners, we do a lot of unpaid work supporting local parents, which largely goes unnoticed, so it’s nice to be recognised.

Head of NCT College, Virginia Campbell said: “The energy and enthusiasm NCT practitioners provide to the many new parents who turn to NCT for support through the First 1,000 Days is remarkable. The NCT Stars Awards are a wonderful opportunity for us to say thank you to these often unsung heroes of NCT.”

If you are interested in becoming an NCT practitioner visit NCT’s website or call NCT’s enquiries line on 0300 330 0770.

15 May

Reading Half Marathon

A few years ago, I took it upon myself to start running. This seemed a bit bonkers at the time; I’m not unfit but I’m not young either, and it took a year (including time off for a sprained ankle) to comfortably run 5k. Fast forward to January this year when our local NCT Committee started to talk about fundraising to train Breastfeeding Peer Supporters. We need about £5000 to train a group of 12 women to support local mothers, and when someone suggested running Reading Half Marathon in March, for some reason I thought it seemed like a good idea.

I lost no time in booking my place, otherwise I would certainly have changed my mind. I don’t really enjoy running, I just do it so that I can eat cake. Luckily my son is now in school, and my work is quite flexible, so I was able to fit most of the training into the working week. I looked at various training plans but since I don’t understand words like “fartlek” I just decided to increase my mileage week by week. This turned out to be moderately successful, and three weeks before the race, I ran ten miles on Saturday morning, and actually enjoyed the whole thing (as well as the enormous lunch I ate afterwards).

A few days later, I enjoyed another 5 miles, but then the twinges started in my left leg. I now know I had torn my plantaris – the muscle running down the side of my leg and joining to my foot. This is likely to be because I increased my mileage too rapidly. At the time, I took the decision to stop running, and swim regularly until race day, and accept that I would probably walk some of it.

On the day of the race, I met up with some friends who were there to give support; they went off to wait at the bottom of the first big hill, and I joined the queue for the start. As a slow runner, I was starting near the back, and it took about half an hour for me even to reach the start line. I managed to pace myself well at the beginning, and was so distracted by the crowds and the costumes and all the charity t-shirts around me, that I barely noticed the first couple of miles. Then I came to the hill, and my friends waved and offered me jelly babies (which I refused; I hate jelly babies). Having run up the hill twice already in training, I knew exactly what to expect, and proudly powered up it. By the top I was very glad to know the first drink station was soon approaching.

I continued steadily on through the university, down Kendrick Road, and into town where my boyfriend and son were waiting to cheer me through at 6.5 miles. They then cut across while I ran round Forbury Gardens, and waved again at 7.5 miles. As I ran away from them, I started to feel despondent: I was only half way, and running all that again felt like such a big ask. And then it turned out that there was another huge hill connecting Oxford Road and Tilehurst Road, which came as a horrible shock. The only thing that got me up that hill was knowing I had another friend who had come all the way from Milton Keynes just to cheer me on, waiting at the top of it.

After that it was run-walk all the rest of the way; my head lost the battle before my legs did. Even though I knew there was going to be some walking, I was still disappointed by it. Yesterday I booked my place in next year’s Half, and there are two things I will do differently: train more gradually, and arrange for targeted support from mile 8 onwards. Like a new mother breastfeeding her baby, I know now that the more support I have, the more likely I am to have a positive experience and a satisfying end to my journey.

18 Jan

The Long Run

Our local NCT branches (Wokingham and Reading) are raising money to pay for training a group of Breastfeeding Peer Supporters. These are mothers trained in listening skills and basic breastfeeding knowledge, who can then support other new mothers at drop-in groups and clinics. It costs quite a lot but the return to the local community is great.

I’ve been convinced to have a go at running the Reading Half Marathon, to raise some money towards it. Having never run further than 7.5 miles, the thought is pretty scary. I’m collecting motivation points here: JustGiving Page

14 Jan



I once worked in an office full of women, where there was always someone pregnant or on maternity leave. “Doing nct” was considered a rite of passage, an essential part of preparation for parenthood. So when I finally did become pregnant ten years ago, I signed up for my course and waited quite impatiently for it to start. I’m a sceptical type, and went in with some reservations, but the warm, knowledgeable, down to earth teacher really won me over and opened my eyes to a possible experience of childbirth quite different from my expectations at that point.

Although I didn’t form long term friendships with my antenatal group, they were an amazing source of support and company during the first few months. I got involved with the local branch when I spotted an advert in the newsletter asking people to train as breastfeeding counsellors. “Sure,” I thought. “I know all about breastfeeding.” Three years of training later I had a solid network of friends I made through the training: fellow trainees, local antenatal teachers, and other branch volunteers. I had also learned how little I knew about breastfeeding.

When I started the training I thought that Breastfeeding Counsellors just had a voluntary role supporting mothers, and when I found out we were expected to facilitate antenatal sessions as well, I was horrified. I don’t really speak in public, and I’m not great with strangers. At the end of my training I went out to run my first session, copious notes in hand, and at the end of it the group gave me a round of applause! I had so much fun, came home on a high, and looked forward to the next one, and the next one, and the many hundreds after that.

NCT gave me more choices in birth and parenting, and then unexpectedly gave me a new career as a BFC. I love working with parents both antenatally and postnatally, and I now have other roles supporting my colleagues, as well as related work outside NCT that would never have been possible if I’d stayed in that office. Sometimes I get downhearted when NCT gets bad press, because I know how hard practitioners work to meet the hugely diverse needs of the parents who come to our courses. And then I carry on doing the work I love, supporting every parent in the situation they are in, as our mission statement says.

08 Nov

A poem about being an “idealistic” breastfeeding counsellor

I had a positive birth and a healthy, full term baby
Then I didn’t know what to do
On the few occasions when he latched on, it really hurt
I still don’t know why.

I started expressing on day two
I can’t remember when I stopped
I went to the breastfeeding clinic twice and called all the helplines
The midwives and the health visitors told me he had a good latch
One of the helplines suggested I use nipple shields so I did
Then he latched on, but it still really hurt.

I cried at nearly every feed for about 12 weeks.
I cried when he didn’t gain enough weight
I cried when he wouldn’t take a bottle of formula
I cried when he woke up to feed in the night
I cried when he wouldn’t nap during the day
I cried when my mother told me I had made a rod for my own back
I cried when he cried.

I cried less and less, week by week.
Breastfeeding became peaceful, but still demanding
Breastfeeding felt good
Breastfeeding soothed him immediately
Breastfeeding was the only time when he was still.

I cried when he decided he didn’t need to breastfeed anymore.

[p.s. At least once a week someone calls me for support with a whole range of feeding issues. How can anyone think I’m idealistic about how easy it is to breastfeed?]

07 Aug

One Week

Recently a father-to-be in an antenatal session asked about my work and commented on how varied it is. On a busy week I sometimes feel it might be a bit too varied! Now it’s the summer holidays and I’m not doing much at all, which is another big advantage of being self-employed. I thought I’d share a typical week:

In the morning I drive down to Hampshire to help at a breastfeeding drop-in running alongside a Health Visitors’ weighing clinic. It can be quite quiet but today there are a few mums and babies, and it’s a nice place to work because there’s another Breastfeeding Counsellor working alongside me. As you will see, while almost all my work is with people, it’s not very often that I work with a colleague.

Back from Hampshire in time to record an episode of Sprogcast with Mark Harris. This is a newish project, and great fun to do, but it’s pretty time consuming with the preparatory reading, interviews, and editing. It’s getting easier, though.

My son has a playdate after school so I don’t have to worry about doing his tea, but I do have to feed myself and my partner before I go out to facilitate session two of an NCT Essentials Antenatal Course. Session two is the one about labour and birth, so quite an intense evening for me, as this is not my specialist area.

I usually have to wind down in front of the television for an hour or so after an evening class; it’s nice to have some time with my partner, too.

This morning I’m running an Introducing Solids workshop in Reading. These are quite a challenge because the clients have such differing needs, and because I’m not used to working in a room full of babies. You would think that I’d be more confident, having done them for years now, but I have to take a deep breath before every one of these workshops.

I get home in time for a swim, before picking my son up from school and taking him for his own swimming lesson. No evening class tonight so I can chill with my partner.

On Wednesdays I run the local NCT Bumps & Babies group in a church in a town centre. I usually cycle in, then go for a swim afterwards. Bumps & Babies is fun, usually a good age range (the babies, that is!), and lots of chat. It’s a great place to come to meet other new mums and find out about what’s going on locally. We talk a lot about sleep, and nurseries.

In the afternoon I do a couple of hours on the NCT Breastfeeding Line, talking to (mainly) mums all over the country. Sometimes when the line is quiet I use that as my admin time, but sometimes a two-hour shift features back to back calls and a load of voicemail messages too.

The evening is tricky because my son has a karate lesson, and I have an antenatal group reunion, now that everyone in the group has had their baby and had a few weeks to get used to the idea. The group wanted it to be early evening, in a pub local to where I ran the course. This involves driving my son to my partner’s office, where he eats a picnic tea before getting the train home and walking up to karate; then going on to the pub and leaving in time to get back and pick him up at the end. And after that I had my tea!

A quiet day! So I might go for a run or a swim in the morning, and the only work I’m doing during the day is an hour on the Breastfeeding Line and a call with one of my BFC supervisees. Any spare time will be spent editing the podcast.

In the evening I drive to Windsor where I’m facilitating an antenatal breastfeeding session for NCT. This always feels like my “core” work, the thing I joined NCT to do. Most of the time it’s the best, easiest and most rewarding of my many roles. Even the challenging groups are usually fun, and if you like the inside of church halls, then oh my goodness this is exciting work. That’s not the main thing for me, though…

I’m in Didcot training a group of dedicated and enthusiastic mums to be Breastfeeding Peer Supporters. This is new work for me, and I’m learning a lot as I go along, as – I hope – are they! With the driving time, it takes up the full day and I’m usually home about five minutes before my son gets in from school. We usually spend Friday afternoon after school over at Ailsa’s house where the boys play together and we get to drink tea and debrief.

Over the last year I’ve tried to cut out weekend work altogether, although I do sometimes offer my time on NCT’s Crisis Support line for other practitioners. Sometimes I do a class on a Saturday morning, but particularly in the summer I try to avoid this. I used to do two a day on a Saturday which was exhausting but paid well enough to justify giving up half my weekend.

This was a typical week, with about 18.5 hours of paid work and I can only hazard a guess at how much unpaid work I do on top of that, with things like volunteering for my NCT branch, taking local breastfeeding support calls, and all the admin that my roles entail. And this is a week with no doula client, and possibly the reason why there’s no doula client is that I just can’t spare enough regular hours to support someone properly. I love my work, I love supporting new parents and being part of this massively varied and positive profession. And I love having the flexibility to drop it all in the summer holidays so that I don’t have to worry about childcare – and I love my partner (not only) because without his support I’d never be able to do any of this.

Views expressed here are my own, and do not represent the views of NCT.