A Question of Value

Conventional feminism and real freedom

Suppose someone takes their daughter, or a young friend, to a social gathering*. This young woman is conscientious and high-achieving, and she’s at the stage of thinking about what she wants to do with her life, or, better still, about how she can best serve given her God-given temperament, interests, and talents.

At this gathering, she meets and talks with two women in their late sixties, one of whom has recently retired after being a consultant doctor for many years, and the other of whom has spent her life as the stay-at-home mother of her three children and as a housewife and homemaker.

On the way home, discussing these conversations with her grown-ups, would you expect both these women to be held up as role models for her? Would their different life choices be regarded as equally good ways for her to consider using her gifts and talents by her teachers, her parents, her school careers advisers?

Freedom, I think, would mean having the choice between paid work or traditional woman’s roles equally valued, advocated, supported, and respected.  Not a situation where girls are pushed into medicine and engineering in order to prove someone else’s political point!

We seem to have an odd tendency as a culture to say nice things about stay-at-home motherhood when directly challenged, but to talk and behave the rest of the time as if it was a waste of people’s time and talents, which no intelligent girl or woman could possibly “want” to engage in.

The acceptance that stay-at-home motherhood is not the right way for every family to do things, and the insistence that it isn’t a laudable ambition for a young woman** who’s drawn in that direction to “want” to occupy herself chiefly with the daily care of her family, are very different things.

Cherry Foster

 

*Or suppose, being at the stage I’m describing, you go to a social gathering, etc. I couldn’t write it to include that grammatically without it being hopelessly confusing.

**Or for a young man.  The gender specific language here is chiefly because I am trying to make a point specifically about women and feminism, not because I think stay-at-home fatherhood is wrong, or that it should be off the map.  I am not an egalitarian but a complementarian: I don’t want men who are suited to usually feminine roles, or women who are suited to usually masculine roles, to be prevented by prejudice or convention from doing them, but I don’t think it helps to try to obliterate the tendency of some roles and tasks to devolve more to men or women.  Rather I think, where relevant, a masculine or feminine environment should be aware of its tendencies and understand what it needs to do to welcome and include members of the minority gender.

Brownie Points

On responding well to the fluctuations of ability common in dyslexia/dyspraxia

A village hall, dusty, yellow floor, magnolia walls. A group of primary school age girls* in yellow jumpers and brown trousers or culottes, sitting around the hall tables, with circles of floral fabric and of cardboard.

Needles slip around the circles of cloth with varied skill. Some girls double their threads; some use single threads and accidentally unthread their needles. The stitches are pulled up, gathering the cloth to cover the cardboard. The base of a pincushion is formed.

I was good at sewing; I had sewed a lot at home. I was the first to finish. I spent most of the time helping other girls with less experience.

Brown Owl gave me five brownie points for achievement.

The same scene the week after. More circles of fabric. Instead of cardboard circles, the tables are covered in stuffing and plastic lids, lids from chocolate spread and peanut butter jars. Needles are pulled through cloth, this time to gather the fabric over a lid full of stuffing. Then glue is spread on the underneath, and the lid is stuck to the fabric covered cardboard, hiding the stitching, and adding an extra layer of strength to unskilled work.

I was, again, the first to finish the stitching. But as I pulled the gathering stitches up, I broke the thread.

I started again. Again it did not take me long to get around the circle. And again I broke the thread trying to gather the fabric.

Even now, twenty years later, and doing professional needlework, I never try to gather with sewing thread. I use crochet cotton or some other tough, smooth thread that is too strong to break by hand. Why this task, and only this task defeats me, I am not clear. I have a presentation of dyspraxia that has affected gross motor skills but not fine ones (a pattern I think is fairly common in post-stroke damage but unusual in developmental dyspraxia). Perhaps there is something in that particular task which uses the affected part of the brain. Or perhaps it is just harder to put right than most other mistakes that can be made while stitching. But this type of situation is my normal experience. Suddenly, in the middle of something I was good at, came a task I actually could not do, for no apparent reason. Sometimes – worse – it was a question of being able to do or not do literally the same thing on one day and not on another. How inherently frustrating that is can surely be imagined.

I cannot remember how many times I tried to gather that piece of cloth.  In the end, I was the last girl to finish, assisted by one of the leaders, highly frustrated and feeling somewhat humiliated.

Brown Owl gave me five Brownie points for persevering.

It was not a typical response to that frequently occurring situation of being both good and bad at the same thing. The typical response was anger, contempt, and punishment. I was messing around, doing it on purpose, not making an effort. My year two teacher picked up my work on a bad day and told the rest of the class “this is how your work should not look”.

I don’t want to be too hard on my teachers, who were certainly not individually to blame, though I feel our culture surrounding children is. Children should be expected to co-operate (and it should be them not the teacher who is blamed if they don’t) and adults should not assume arrogance rather than frustration, lack of effort rather than an odd pattern of talents and abilities.

I did not receive a correct diagnosis of the problem till I was seventeen, or a full one until I was twenty (the diagnosis at seventeen missing the fact that I had CVI). By which time, sadly, I had complex post-traumatic stress disorder from the combination of bullying by schoolfellows and lack of appropriate support or acceptance in an environment which for a child with that set of difficulties was extremely difficult and hostile.

Looking back, I think apart from not judging (i.e. it not being the default answer to assume that a child who struggles is doing it on purpose rather than having real difficulty), the main things to do for a child with this tendency are to encourage them just to plod on through all the frustrations, to praise them for doing their best on a bad day even though their work is mediocre, to accept (and to encourage them to accept) that their abilities do have an unusually high tendency to fluctuate day-to-day, or within a particular category of activity, and that this is an ok way for someone to be.

And I will be for ever grateful to Brown Owl for doing exactly that.

Brownie uniform photo credit Lia copyright to attribution
This isn’t precisely the uniform I wore, but it is more similar to it than the current UK uniform is, with badge sash and long sleeved yellow top. As I remember it, the navy blue in that picture was dark brown in our uniform, as was the word “Brownies” printed across the front of the sweater. Photo credit: Lia; photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

 

*For international readers: Brownies in England were aged 7-10 when I was a member.  I was probably eight or nine.  Primary School is 4-11.  Year 2 is ages 6-7.

The Improbable Policy of Ebenezer Scrounge

On the difficulties of reducing all claims to property to “greater need”.

Bob Crouch shivered nervously as he waited for his boss. Ebenezer crashed in and slammed the door, tearing a hole in his ancient suit.

“Bother,” he said. Then he looked at Bob. “What is it? I’ve only got half an hour – then I need to go and join the trustees of the fisherman’s fund.”

Bob swallowed. “I’ve been with you now for twelve years,” he said.

“And very good work you do too,” said Ebenezer, who valued Bob, and never hesitated to praise him.

“And I feel that it is fair I ask you to increase my wages, which have not been increased in that time. I have a large family, as you know, and my son Tom is disabled.”

“Oh, come on, Bob,” Ebenezer said. “If I raise your wages, I’ll have to decrease the donation to the East African Famine Fund. At least your family are in no danger of starving. Their children have a greater need than yours.”

Bob had known he would probably get an answer of this type. He felt momentarily ashamed of himself, wondering what right he had to money that was preventing others starving. Then he wondered if Ebenezer thought he should give the money he, Bob, spent on food for his children to charity, until his children were in a greater state of malnutrition than any other children in the world. Probably not. Ebenezer did eat enough, if not a crumb more – and he never expected anything of others he didn’t do himself. Remembering his son’s unhappiness, his daughter’s probable illness, and his wife’s worried face, he pressed on.

“Yes, but that isn’t the point…” he began.

At that moment there was a knock on the door. “Oh bother,” said Ebenezer. “It’s the soldiers’ orphans’ missionary charity rep. I must see what he wants.”

Bob sighed, and went to his work. He’d known he was probably wasting his time. Even huddled in his coat, he felt cold. The allowance of coal was minimal. Ebenezer didn’t seem to suffer much from it, rushing about as he did, but Bob did. He was glad when it was time to go home. Not that home was much warmer.

His wife Martha met him at the door. All his children were in the tiny living room clustered around Tom, talking eagerly to him of their day at school. Martha could teach him herself, but never had there been a child less well suited to being taught at home rather than going to school. His half-wistful, half-angry eyes followed their neighbours’ daughter, born without legs, being whirled home from school in her wheelchair by a laughing crowd of brothers and friends. Bob had applied to the same charity for one for Tom, but Ebenezer being the chair of trustees, he had been told that as Tom could walk a few steps, they must save their grants for those who could not walk at all, who thereby had a greater need. Had Bob been earning a fair wage for his work, he could easily have purchased a wheelchair for his son himself, but as things stood, they could pay for little but food and shelter and essential clothing, and as Tom could not walk the mile to school and back, he could not go.

The children were cheerful enough most of the time with their rag dolls and hand-me-down clothes, but he knew his youngest daughter had wept all the last night at not being able to go to her friend’s birthday party for want of a gift and a dress. She was thin and pale, and coughed frequently. Bob and Martha both feared she was becoming seriously ill. Ebenezer would undoubtedly pay thousands for her to be treated, but probably not until it was too late.

“Did you get anywhere?” Martha asked him anxiously?

Bob shook his head, his worried eyes passing over his children.

“Oh, it isn’t fair,” she said passionately, “I wish you could find work other than for that old miser.”

“Oh come,” said Bob, who had a fair amount of affection and respect for his employer, “you know he means what he says. He probably lives on a poorer diet than us. And all to give the money to people who are in need.”

“If he wants to live like that himself,” said Martha, “then I respect, yes, admire it immensely. But he has no business imposing it on our children by refusing to pay you what you earn. That money isn’t his to give to other people.”

“Well, there’s nothing we can do except plod on,” said Bob. “There’s no-one else to work for here, and…”

There was a knock on the door, and one of the neighbours’ children poked their head around.

“Letter for you, Mr. Crouch. Got left with us by mistake this morning.”

Bob looked at the letter and slowly broke the seal. Martha looked up to see his face transformed.

“This is from an old schoolfriend of mine. He’s inherited an estate – not sure I quite get who from – and wants a manager, and he says the job’s mine if I want it. Twice the salary I’m earning now, and a cottage provided.”

“Oh wonderful,” cried all the children together.

“Yes,” said Bob, half to himself, as he tried to realise that their current problems, at least, were over. “I’ll never hear the words ‘greater need’ again.”

Crysanthemums photo credit Ramon F Velasquez no copyright source wikamedia commons
Photo Credit: Ramon F. Velasque; Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Cherry Foster

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Inconsistently Applied Assumption

“Isn’t Grandpa coming up the spire with us?” asked the boy.

“No,” said his mother, “He doesn’t think he’ll be able to manage the stairs.”

“He does the stairs at home,” said the boy introspectively, “And at his house.”

“Yes,” said his mother with a laugh, “But there are only 14 steps in our stairs, and there are 223 steps up the spire. It would be too much.”

“I see,” said the boy, nodding as he filed away this new and interesting fact.

 

 

“But,” the runner said to her new manager in dismay, looking up from her race schedule, “Those Marathons are on the same day. Didn’t you check the dates?”

“Yes, of course I did. But they are close together – you should be able to get from one course to another in time. So that will be three races on the 2nd, and another three on the 3rd. Should be fine.”

The runner looked blank. “I can’t possibly run six Marathons in two days.”

“Why not?” asked the manager. “You have a consistent finish time of less than three hours.”

The runner looked utterly bewildered. “But…” she stuttered.

She turned to her trainer, who had just come in.

“What’s this?” said her trainer. He looked at the schedule.

“Don’t be ridiculous. Of course she can’t run six Marathons in two days. It would be far too much.”

 

Three new students were enjoying their first field trip to a barely visible ruin. Most of the old walls were gone, their former whereabouts only clear from lines of darker grass, but periodically, a long ridge of a broken flint and stone wall still stood, running from one side of the site to the other like a miniature terrace.

One of the students, a girl with black curly hair, was using an electronic-assist manual wheelchair. She carried crutches on the back, but they looked new.

“Oh dear,” she said, as they approached the fourth of the walls, an impassable step for wheels. One of her companions looked at her in surprise.

“We can lift the chair over like we did the others,” he said.

“Yes, if you get out and use the crutches,” said the other student with them, who was wearing jeans and a floaty top.

The girl with curly hair shook her head. “I can’t keep on doing that. It gets too exhausting,” she said.

The girl in jeans looked at her crossly. “But you did it just now.” The boy nodded assent.

“I really can’t go on doing it,” said the girl with curly hair. “You go on without me. There’s plenty to look at back the way we came.”

“You’re just making a silly fuss,” said one of the others crossly, and they walked off.

The girl with curly hair sighed, and turned round to go back the way she had come. If she was fortunate, this would just blow over. If not – she knew well the spite and difficulties that would come her way once her fellow students had decided she was just pretending to get sympathy.

Her lecturer came striding across the grass. “On your own?” she asked. “I’m sure you were with some others a moment ago.”

“I sent them on without me,” she explained. “I can’t go on clambering over these walls on crutches. It gets too much.”

Cold, hard suspicion and anger entered the lecturer’s eyes. “But I know you can do it,” she said, “I saw you.”

 

Cherry Foster

Simplicity or Accuracy – but not both…

Why I find it difficult to make simple requests about my extra needs

In the world of Ugg, dragon’s blood and eggs are part of the stable diet.

This particular alien, however, has something of an intolerance and has to be careful how much she eats.

On attending a conference, she finds the message hasn’t got through, and she has to explain to the catering staff at the counter, that she probably needs something else to eat.

“Well, I can’t eat very much dragon’s products,” she stammers out. “Less in the evening. Does this have more than a yiff or so in it?”

The staff don’t know. “Well, I would hazard it in the morning,” she hesitates, “But, well, a portion probably only has one egg in it? If you take the dragon’s blood batter off? That would probably be ok. I can take about five yiffs if I eat them early in the day, but not in the evening.”

The serving staff try to work it out, but they don’t do the cooking, and they aren’t clear what’s needed.

By this time the hungry queue is getting exasperated. Just make a decision. Just say you need something dragon-free. That’s simple. They should have dragon-free cook-chill meals in the freezer. That’s what they need to hear.

Yes. But if she says that she needs a dragon-free meal, when the staff or fellow attendees see her eating the dragon’s-blood cake for elevenses the next day, will they think, casually, “oh, she’s able to take moderate amounts sometimes, it was just simpler for everyone for her to ask for a dragon-free supper”? Or will they condemn her for malingering and being selfish and giving unnecessary trouble, and refuse in future to give her dragon-free food when she does need it, or do so resentfully and sullenly? Will they make her ill by saying spitefully that things are dragon-free when they aren’t, because they’ve decided that she must be lying about having a problem?

The other aliens are likely to jump the conclusion that she must be unable to eat any dragon products, on the strength of the fact that the easiest way for everyone of handling what she did need at that moment was for her to ask for a dragon-free meal, and that will cause her a lot of other difficulties.

As someone with an extremely complex disability, I don’t mind simplifying what I say about my needs to make it easier for people. What makes it difficult to simplify, and causes me to keep giving extremely complex descriptions which people couldn’t take in all at once even if they wanted to know, is that simple descriptions are inevitably inaccurate, and our cultural mind-set doesn’t allow for that. Simple descriptions and requests don’t and can’t represent the whole picture, but people usually suppose that they do.

As a result, when people with extra needs do simplify, the second the simple description doesn’t match the reality, there are generally people who instantly and angrily start accusing us of pretending. “I thought you said you needed… but you don’t, you wicked, horrible person, who doesn’t really have any extra needs, pretending in order to get sympathy/to the front of the queue/exam privileges”. Or – which is often worse – who respond to their assumption that we must be lying by clandestinely making sure we can’t get what we need.  People without special needs who don’t do this are probably not aware of how much it happens.

We can simplify when appropriate to make it easier for people: I think the discussion about how best to handle and communicate special requirements smoothly and efficiently is ongoing. But communication is necessarily mutual. Where people want simple, easy descriptions and requests, we need to ask in return that they accept that simple descriptions will be inaccurate, and that the automatic assumption, when we do or need things which don’t match what we’ve said to the letter, should be that our needs or difficulties are more complicated than we were initially able to convey in a few sentences.

 

Cherry Foster

The Nature of God’s Commands

Three young children were playing with a ball and tennis racquets in their front garden, when a man they did not know came up to them and spoke to them over the fence.

After talking about their interest in learning to play tennis properly, the man suggested he should take them to the local park where they could play on the tennis court and he could teach them some skills. They were delighted at the idea.

“We must just go and ask Daddy,” they said. “Mummy and Daddy say we must ask them before we leave the garden.”

“Oh no,” said the man, “I don’t have time for that. You must come at once or not at all.”

The three children stared at each other in dismay.

The first said “We’d better not go. Daddy will punish us if we do. Nasty Daddy. He doesn’t really love us.”

“Daddy does love us,” said the second. “So he would want us to go. It would be fun and we’d learn something. He wouldn’t want us to miss out, even though he told us not to.”

But the third said “Daddy does love us, so he must have told us to ask because it would be best for us, even if it’s not nice sometimes.”

 

Cherry Foster

 

Two tales of a not quite accident

Tale one

A lady in a red coat was about to step down from the train to the platform.

A lady with a large patchwork bag came along behind her.

“Do be careful,” she said, worriedly, “There’s a gap.”

She put down her bag and put her hands around the head of the lady in the red coat, covering her eyes so she could no longer see the depth of the step or the size of the gap.

The lady in the red coat was naturally terrified.

“Get off me,” she yelled, “Get off me at once.”

A man using his laptop in the corner of the carriage looked up and saw what was happening. He got up.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he said angrily to the lady with the patchwork bag, who let go of the other lady’s head.

“I was only trying to help,” she said, in injured tones.

The lady in the red coat, freed of the dangerous grip of the lady with the bag, stepped down safely onto the platform and walked off in an angry huff.

The man with the laptop said, “I think I should call the police.”

 

Tale two

A lady in a red coat was about to step down from the train to the platform using her long white cane.

A lady with a large patchwork bag came along behind her.

“Do be careful,” she said, worriedly, “There’s a gap”

She put down her bag and took hold of the cane arm of the lady in the red coat so she could no longer feel the depth of the step or the size of the gap.

The lady in the red coat was naturally terrified.

“Get off me,” she yelled, “Get off me at once.”

A man using his laptop in the corner of the carriage looked up and saw what was happening. He watched with a smile on his face.

The lady in the red coat pulled herself out of the dangerous grip of the lady with the patchwork bag. By sheer luck, she stumbled onto the platform without falling down the gap and walked off in an angry panic.

“I was only trying to help” called the lady with the patchwork bag after her in injured tones.

The man with the laptop said, “Don’t worry.  She just can’t accept her disability and resents needing help.”

 

The end.

 

 

 

N.B. The vast majority of dangerous situations of this type can be avoided by:

  1. asking verbally and from a respectful distance if the person would like help
  2. not assuming a lack of response is assent to being touched/grabbed (!)
  3. taking “no” or “I’m fine” for an answer

If you feel you ought to offer help but find the situation socially incomprehensible, try imagining you are a shop assistant not sure whether a customer wants service or prefers to browse.

 

Cherry Foster