NEVER tell me I have ‘man flu’

What is the most sexist, unsympathetic, demeaning thing you can say to a guy when he’s ill?

Call it ‘man flu’.

I just slammed the door in my neighbour’s face for exactly this reason, and do I feel bad for such unwelcoming behaviour? In all honesty, no. No I do not.

Let me explain why this sort of thing pisses me off. I generally do a 17-18 hour day looking after a one-year-old and a three-year-old, regardless of how I’m feeling. Oftentimes, it’s a great deal more than that. The last four nights my little one stayed up till 3am, 2.15am, midnight, and 2am. On two of those nights, the other one got me up at 4. Why? Because they’ve both got coughs and colds and are feeling too unwell to sleep. I kid you not, my clothes are held together by snot stains and phlegm.

It doesn’t matter if I only snatch a couple of hours sleep – I get up at 7am to change nappies and wipe arses, get others dressed and breakfasted before myself. I play mind-numbing games, take the kids swimming, give them baths, cuddle them, read them stories, cook them lunch and dinner, drive around trying to get them to sleep. I can’t even take a shit by myself anymore.

Which is funny considering I’ve caught my youngest’s upset stomach and had to sit on the toilet eight times yesterday. The human body just can’t take that kind of pressure indefinitely. Something’s got to give, and it has.

Today I’ve woken up exhausted, with a headache, sore throat, pink eyes, runny nose and blocked ears, and I feel like a piece of crap mushed into a taxi’s floor mat. But I still got up, got the kids dressed and fed, took them swimming, brought them home, got them lunch…and then there was a knock at the door.

My neighbour looked at me and the first thing she said was, ‘Are you unwell?’ because I clearly look like shit.

‘I feel awful,’ I said.

‘Oh, poor you,’ she replied sarcastically. ‘What is it, man flu?’

I’ll tell you, she got off lightly with a door slammed in her face.

How did society reach a point where it’s deemed okay to mock somebody who is feeling unwell purely because of their sex? I’m talking to women, because it’s only women who do this, such as my wife, mother-in-law, my neighbour, work colleagues, casual acquaintances, TV shows, adverts – exactly how can you justify mocking people for being ill? If you wouldn’t mock a woman in the same way, why not? And what kind of person does that make you?

I know there’s going to be a section of people out there reading this who’ll say, ‘Well, women had it bad for ages, so suck it up, dude,’ but if such people can’t see the irony in combating sexism by being sexist, then you’re too stupid to be reading my site. I have never mocked anybody, male or female, for being unwell. Why would I? It’s just plain rude.

It’s part of a wider trend of belittling, ugly, anti-male rhetoric that you see out there. Explain something to a woman? You’re mansplaining. Interrupt a woman? You’re manterrupting. Because of course, only men talk down to people or interrupt them.

What the hell has sex got to do with anything? If someone talks down to you or interrupts you, it’s not a male thing – it’s an asshole thing. If a woman talks down to me or interrupts me, I don’t immediately infer it’s because of her sex and use some bullshit, made-up word like womansplaining or womanterruption. You know why? Because neither sex has a monopoly on assholes.

And besides, we already have perfectly good words for these behaviours that don’t try and divide us as people – ‘condescending’ and ‘interrupting’. And there’s a great, inoffensive word you can use when I man is feeling ill that doesn’t belittle him – ‘ill’.

Seriously, I believe in equality. We all have the right to be treated equally and have the same opportunities, regardless of our sex, ethnicity, religion or sexuality. There are, undoubtedly, areas in which women are unjustly discriminated against, just as there are those in which men are unjustly discriminated against (but you’re pretty unlikely to read about that anywhere), but if you believe that ‘raising women up’ to be equal to men is synonymous with ‘pulling men down’, then you’re part of the reason we live in such a fractured, divided society.

Now I’m going to get on with my afternoon, ill or not, knowing I’ve probably got another thirteen hours before I can crawl into bed.

Rant over.

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The Problem With the World Today

I don’t normally get political or socially conscious on this blog, but damn it, I can’t hold back anymore. Not after the conversation I had with my three-year-old this evening when an Indian gentleman appeared on the TV.

‘Look, daddy!’ my daughter cried. ‘What’s he got on his skin?’

I frowned, unable to see what she was talking about. ‘He hasn’t got anything on his skin.’

‘It’s all black!’ she said.

Ah. The penny dropped. Since an early age she’s been exposed to people of many different ethnicities, but this is the first time she’s mentioned it.

Knowing my response might impact her view of the world, I phrased my words very carefully. ‘It’s not black, it’s brown,’ I replied. ‘That’s just the colour of his skin. It’s perfectly normal.’

‘But, but, he’s a boy!’ she said. ‘He’s supposed to be white!’

As you can imagine, this threw me through a loop. ‘What do you mean he’s supposed to be white?’ I demanded. ‘Who told you that? And who do you know who has white skin?’

‘We do,’ she said.

‘No we don’t,’ I replied. ‘Our skin is a kind of pinky peach colour. Why do you think our skin is white?’

She ummed and ahhed about this, and then started pointing out other people on TV, and saying, ‘He’s white,’ and ‘She’s black,’ depending on their ethnicity.

‘People aren’t black or white,’ I told her. ‘People have different skin tones, from very pale like ours through olive and bronze and all shades of brown to very dark. Like people have different coloured hair and different coloured eyes, people have different coloured skin too, but inside we’re all the same.’

I could have dismissed it as simple childish curiosity, but what really disturbed me was that she somehow knew the manmade categories of white and black – skin tones that rarely, if ever, exist in nature. I have deliberately never spoken to her about race as I want her to treat people as individuals, not as belonging to one group or another. Once you start lumping people together into groups you begin to assign values and assumptions to those groups, and that’s why I’m so determined that she takes people as she finds them – especially living in a county that at the last census was 98% white. The fact that even kids as young as three are arbitrarily dividing people into ‘us’ and ‘ them’ is indicative of the world as a whole, and, I have to admit, makes me fear for the future.

I recently commented on a blog called Pointless Overthinking that asked readers to suggest the biggest problem facing humanity right now. I didn’t have to consider my answer because it’s something I’ve been thinking about for months.

In my opinion, the biggest problem afflicting society right now – in the West, at least – is polarisation: the division of people into discrete, competing and mutually exclusive categories. While this has always been a problem, the last five years seem to have launched us into a face-off with one another that has reached truly frightening proportions, from the level of the individual right up to that of government and state. It isn’t good for any of us and it really needs to stop.

We live in the age of Black Lives Matter, of Fourth Wave Feminism, of #MeToo and MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way); Donald Trump and Women’s Marches; Brexit and Trans-Acivists. Every day we hear about patriarchy, white privilege, rape culture, mansplaining. We’re increasingly being divided by our sex, our skin colour, our sexuality – even whether our genitals match our gender identity. We’re being put into boxes, stripped of our individual identities and judged on the basis of arbitrary characteristics that don’t really mean anything at all.

These days, you’re either left or right; a bleeding-heart Democrat or an evil Republican; a racist Brexiteer or an unpatriotic Remoaner. You’re an oppressed person of colour or a privileged white person; a female victim or a male rapist; a trans or a cis. And instead of reaching across the divide and trying to understand the other side as people, all we’re doing is throwing insults, and spreading hatred, and treating whole categories of people as though they all share the same opinions, the same values, the same attitudes and beliefs.

People blame Trump for this polarisation, but it started before him. He wasn’t the cause of it, but a symptom of the growing divisions that are pushing everything to the opposite extremes and leaving the middle ground empty. People are mostly reasonable, rational if complex beings, and should be treated as such, but instead of finding what we have in common, we’re using terms like racist and sexist and transphobic to reduce people on the other side to simplistic bogeymen. Calling somebody a Communist while they call you a Nazi isn’t going to build bridges – quite the opposite, in fact.

What I don’t understand is how we got here. How did social categories – those things I was brought up to believe were unimportant – become so damned important again? I thought we were beyond the male/female thing, the white/black thing, the straight/gay thing. I thought we’d reached a point where we judged people by who they are rather than what they are. But apparently not.

That’s why we have books like Why I’m No Longer Talking (To White People) About Race: white people are unable to understand racism because of the colour of their skin. And why men are frequently told they are not allowed an opinion on abortion because of their sex. And why the voices of cisgendered individuals are often marginalised, even within the LGBTQ+ community, because of their gender identity. In a society that everywhere tells us not to judge a book by its cover, we are everywhere judging and being judged by our covers. The rich individualities we hold inside are being ignored.

The circus of the Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing over the alleged sexual assault of Christine Blasey Ford by Brett Kavanaugh shows just how divided we’ve all become. Instead of the solemnity and seriousness with which such an allegation should have been treated, it became the focal point for all the  various polarised tensions that exist today, an explosion of anger and judgment and partisanship, of emotion and categorisation. The truth of what happened to those people all those years ago seemed less important than what they represented and how they could be used to score points against the other side.

And there is the truth of today’s world. Political discourse these days is about demonizing the other side and reducing the wondrously individual entity that is the human being to a mere cipher for everything you hate. ‘Us and them’ is alive and well in a day and age intelligent and aware enough to know that such a division is not only dangerous, it is untrue.

So how about we stop treating people as men and women, straights and gays, blacks and whites, trans- and cisgenders, evil this and evil that, and start treating one another as people again? All sides, left and right, male, female, woke and still asleep – you’re all equally to blame. Try explaining your point of view to one another, instead of simply shouting, and try listening to what the other person has to say, instead of hearing only what you expect to hear.

It was 1963 that Martin Luther King Jr had a dream that his children would not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their characters. Those words are as resonant today as they were all those years ago. I will continue to teach my kids to take people as they find them. I just hope that others will show them the same courtesy in return.

Just let my little girl dance

It started off innoculously enough – I was in a session with a support worker, I had some music on the TV, and the little one was dancing around the room, giggling, smiling and waving her arms like a happy little lunatic. ‘You’re going to be a dancer when you grow up, aren’t you?’ I said.

‘Wow,’ said my support worker. ‘What gender stereotyping! Why can’t we teach little girls to be doctors or mechanics?’

Considering my daughter is mostly pre-verbal, it might be a little early to start her on the finer points of anatomy and physiology, but since I was only half-serious, instead of leading with this self-evident statement, I said, ‘Because she likes dancing.’

‘Of course she likes dancing, you take her to ballet classes!’ the lady replied, as though I was somehow brainwashing my daughter into enjoying a stereotypically feminine pastime.

‘Well, actually we took her to ballet because we noticed she enjoyed dancing, not the other way around. And since she loves being the centre of attention, posing for pictures and watching herself on videos, she might prefer to be a model or an actress.’

‘Actress,’ the lady spat, ignoring everything but the final word. ‘Why can’t she be an actor?’

Notwithstanding the fact that the Oscars would take issue with this (gotta aim high, yo), I realised then that I had unwittingly wandered into a minefield of semantics, gender politics and societal expectation with someone who saw me as a gender-Nazi. Which is odd, because I’ve always considered my views on sex and gender to be rather liberal and enlightened.

I mean, I’ve always believed men and women can do pretty much any job equally well, regardless of what’s between their legs – with the possible exception of the adult entertainment industry. Whether it’s doctors, dentists, pilots, bus drivers, lecturers, tattooists, waiters or the police, the only real requirement is that a person can do the job and do it well. The greatest action movie ever made (Point Break, as if you didn’t know!) was directed by a woman. The best nurse I ever met was a man. Their sex didn’t make any difference at all – they were just damn good at doing their chosen professions.

Likewise, I’ve never considered there to be male and female jobs around the home. Most of my parents’ generation still believes that the man puts up shelves, disciplines the kids, carves the turkey and fixes the car while the woman does the washing, cleaning, cooking and ironing. That’s not how it happens in my household. We pitch in equally. Equally badly, as it turns out, but equally nonetheless.

And nor do traditional gender divisions restrict my interests and behaviours. As a kid, I read Nancy Drew books in spite of the teasing I got (even though they had the same authors as the Hardy Boys, since Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon never actually existed). My favourite movie is The Jane Austen Book Club, the DVD of which is bright pink and very much sits in the ‘chick flick’ section of the supermarket. For my parents’ silver wedding anniversary I did them a cross-stitch, and my favourite exhibit at the New Forest Show each year is the flower-arranging tent. I’m hardly an advocate of men behaving like men and women remembering their place.

So how the hell could she think I was an advocate for traditional gender roles, or that I want to restrict my daughter to a submissive position in society? And what’s so bad about being a dancer anyway?

More to the point, how could she twist something so innocent and beautiful as an infant enjoying the simple pleasure of dancing into some judgment of my supposedly totalitarian parenting techniques?

Apparently, it is because our daughter wears dresses, and has a toy kitchen, and plays with dolls. Good gosh, I am an awful father. Clearly, instead of obediently reinforcing the patriarchy, I should make her play with engines and models of the human skeleton until she damn well likes it!

In all seriousness, I see the role of father as a cross between teacher and facilitator. It is my job to teach my daughter about the world, and it is my job to encourage her natural interests and abilities and guide her into being a healthy, happy adult. And you know what? At play group, she liked playing with the kitchen, so we got her a kitchen. And at her friend’s house, she really enjoyed playing with a doll, so we got her a doll. And every morning when we open the wardrobe, she picks out her own outfit. We’re not forcing her to play with dolls or kitchens – she also has jigsaw puzzles, teddy bears, toy cars, a box of musical instruments – she chooses to play with them. And that is the crux of the issue.

There are extremists on both sides of this debate. Those who try to force their daughters to conform to the traditional female tropes of motherhood, housework and dancing  are clearly in the wrong; but so too are those who think we should force our daughters to be doctors or mechanics simply to fulfil an agenda. My daughter is an intelligent, strong-willed, independent young lady, and she will be whatever she wants to be. If, when she grows up, she does in fact wish to be a doctor, then I will support her and nobody has the right to tell her she should be a dancer instead; but equally, if she wants to be a dancer, then I’ll support her in that too, and woe betide anybody who says she ought to be a doctor.

True equality between the sexes is about freedom – the freedom for little girls and boys to choose what they enjoy doing, and what they’d like to do when they’re older, without it being dictated to them by traditionalists on the one hand and progressives on the other. In short, when I’m encouraging my daughter to dance, keep your big mouth shut.