The Shoogly Peg

Changing Fear

From time to time, I submit personal essays to magazines. Sometimes they publish them, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes, when they don’t, I’m left with an essay that was of a particular time and can’t be resubmitted elsewhere. This is one of those essays. I wrote it in February 2013 when I was extremely pregnant but it didn’t quite hit the mark for the magazine. It seemed a shame to abandon it entirely, so I thought I’d stick it up here.

There is a stage of giving birth called Transition. That’s right, with a capital T. It’s when you move from regular contractions, in between which you can rest, mop your brow and say things like “Whew!”, to actual, proper, pushing a person out of your body. Transition is the part when you are most likely to go bananas. You might find yourself swearing at your partner, weeping helplessly or deciding that you urgently require a sixteen-piece orchestra to accompany your labour.

I am currently in a different sort of Transition: the period between starting maternity leave and having a baby. In many ways, it is lovely. I spend my days swimming, cuddling my cats and doing yoga.

On the other hand, constantly wondering if a baby is about to fall out of you is disconcerting. Every visit to the loo, every dart of back pain, each (teeny and ladylike) bottom parp prompts the question “Is this it?” And so far it hasn’t been, but at some point it will be and I will become a mum.

This is terrifying. From Marmee in Little Women to the indefatigable Marge Simpson, popular culture says mothers always know what to do for the best. Can I, as a non-fictional mum, possibly live up to such expectations?

Probably not, but I’m starting to believe I might not be the Inexplicable Mum Who Can’t. Pregnancy has been a fantastic lesson in the pointlessness of fear and the importance of trusting my instinct.

The fact is, I’m a big feartie – a useful Scottish word for someone lacking courage. The list of things I have not done because I was scared is lengthy, embarrassing and constantly expanding. For example:

– despite being a nerdy kid with an interest in public policy, I didn’t apply to the civil service because I might have had to work abroad: too scary.

– I didn’t accept my dream job when I was offered it after university, because I’d already taken a post elsewhere and was afraid of looking unreliable.

– And the other day, I didn’t ask for bread with my lasagne in a deli, even though the menu said it should have been included, because I was frightened I’d look greedy.  I am not kidding. Somewhere in my brain lurks a genuine belief that the server would have put down his spoon, stared at me in outrage and hissed “You want bread as well as lasagne? For the same price? You intemperate hog!”

Clearly, this is insane. But pregnancy is showing me that it is also unnecessary. In contrast to the paralysis caused by my permanent intellectual fears,  my body has cracked on with making a human being without the slightest hesitation. From the earliest days of my pregnancy, when my abdomen ached and my innards felt suddenly leaden, my anatomy has uttered a metaphorical “Right-ho!” and unbelievably, miraculously, turned out to know exactly what it is doing.

Without the aid of a project plan, risk analysis or spreadsheet, my previously unremarkable body has built ears, kidneys, nostrils, kneecaps, toenails and all the other constituent parts of a person. It has imbued them with life, so that I now spend quite a lot of the day going “Oof!” as my baby wedges his or her foot beneath my ribs, or watching my belly gently roll as a brand new person wriggles around inside me.

All of this is making me question my panic-based approach to life thus far. If it turns out that I actually know, instinctively, how to make a baby, then what else can I do without difficulty? Maybe I won’t be a disaster as a mum. Maybe a combination of hormones, instinct and newfound confidence will get me through.  Maybe I’ll even turn out to be good at it.

It seems unlikely. But then, life is unlikely right now. Recently, I found myself in a circle of mums and babies, singing Old MacDonald Had a Farm and learning hand signals for the names of animals, such as cat, dog and cow.

As I bashfully warbled, “With a moo moo here, and a moo moo there”, I couldn’t help reflecting that the week before, I had been a manager, in charge of a department and a budget. Now I was miming imaginary  cow horns. What have I done? How will I cope?

This sort of sudden consternation has since been christened “having a moo moment” by a friend from antenatal class. But it’s exactly the sort of thinking that my body is teaching me to abandon. The fact is, I will cope. I will cope with giving birth, even if I swear and scream and demand an orchestral accompaniment. I will cope with motherhood. I will cope with going back to work, and finding ways to fit the things I love into my new life.

If I can build a person, then what else might I be capable of? I don’t know, but I’m excited to find out. And at the very least, next time I’m out for lunch, I’ll be demanding both bread AND lasagne.

Scotland’s brief summer

I walked down the stairs in our close this morning feeling flat, empty and disbelieving. Less than ten hours beforehand, I’d sprinted up them, draped in a too-large Yes T-shirt, having spent the evening knocking on the doors of excited Yes voters to check they had been to the polls. What had then seemed possible had now slipped from our grasp and there was nothing for it but to go to work in the bleak grey of the morning.

I can’t feel positive. I know we’re supposed to stay focused, keep our heads held high, not let our spirits be crushed and so on, but I can’t. Right now, I do feel crushed. I feel beaten. I feel like we have deliberately thrown away the greatest chance that any of us will ever be given to do something amazing, and I just can’t work up any positivity about that.

I’ve heard many people say that we can’t lose the amazing energy and optimism that the campaign generated, and I understand that, but it’s a false hope. The point is, people were enthusiastic about independence. You can’t just transfer that to some other cause – people were hopeful because there was something to hope for, and now there is not.

I cannot, either work up any enthusiasm about our consolation prize of further devolution. In fact, the speed with which politicians have begun to focus on this just demonstrates that none of them really understand what this was about. In all the conversations I had with fellow Yes voters, I never heard a single person say, “You know, the thing I’m really fighting for here is for Holyrood to have greater tax-raising powers”.

It was about building a different country, a better country. A country where the circumstances of your birth did not define your destiny. A country focused on what it could give to its poorest citizens, not what it could take from them. A country that welcomed new citizens, rather than looking for reasons to throw them out. A country that understood that its neighbours across Europe were its friends, not its enemies. And a country where our children did not go to sleep with Europe’s biggest arsenal of nuclear weapons resting mere miles from their beds.

In truth, I couldn’t care less whether or not David Cameron devolves housing benefit or not. If we were truly to get anything transformative out of this sorrowful situation, here’s what I’d want.

1. Trident gone. I think the ability to rid ourselves of weapons of mass destruction was a big motivating factor for a lot of Yes voters, so why has not a single politician mentioned it today?

2. A decent Scottish media. Every newspaper bar the Sunday Herald was against independence and the TV and radio news too often presented things from a London standpoint. How can we properly form opinions about events in our land when our news consistently comes from people who, through no fault of their own, do not have any of the context? We need an impartial, Scottish-owned and produced media which is devoted to presenting and investigating the facts, not telling us how we should vote.

3. An acknowledgement from the political parties that they can no longer sew things up between themselves. One of the most positive things about this campaign was the genuine grassroots involvement and emergence of autonomous groups working together for change. Jeane Freeman of the most active of these, Women for Independence, made the excellent point in the small hours of this morning, as hopes for Yes were fading, that the politicians should not assume that the next steps were theirs to define. I’d love to see council and parliamentary candidates loosely affiliated with Women for Independence or any other grassroots campaign standing in the next elections. There are so many more voices out there than our narrowly-constructed political parties have managed to represent.

So there you go. I guess I’ve managed to find some things to hope for. How we bring them about, I don’t know. I do know that I will miss so many things about this campaign. I’ll miss hearing the passionate debates among my friends, previously disinclined to talk about politics. I’ll miss the friendly Yes Cathcart shop, where I met amazing, dedicated, fabulous people. And I think most of all I’ll miss the windows. What a joy it has been over the last few months to gradually watch the deep blue posters blossoming all around me, each one a bright raucous shout of hope.

I haven’t taken mine down yet. I feel like that will be the final admission that it’s all over, and I’m not ready for that. But soon I will have to face up to the fact that my generation has had its chance of independence and we have chosen to say no.

This has been a wonderful, exhilarating, dramatic few months. But it’s over, and Scotland’s brief summer has come to an end.

The night before the dawn

I’ve never been married. But tonight I feel like a bride the night before her wedding. I’m excited about the day ahead, and the possibilities that may come afterwards. I’m anxious, in case it all goes wrong. I can’t sit still, but there doesn’t seem to be any one thing I should be doing.

There’s so much I want to say, and yet I feel it’s all been said already. I don’t want to trudge wearily through arguments about currency, and health, and borders. I don’t want to rail against the empty promises of UK politicians, already being contradicted by apoplectic Conservative MPs promising rebellion. I don’t want to waste my time arguing over whether the London media is or is not biased. Instead, I want to tell a story. It’s a story that was inspired by my friend David Tobin, who wrote a moving and unorthodox account of his journey to Yes. And I thought it might be a lot more interesting than yet another ding-dong about the pound.

My mum, who died long ago, was a journalist. She came from Dundee, spent the early part of her career in London, and returned north when she married. She was fiercely intelligent, literally – she would regularly tear to shreds the arguments of posturing politicians who came across her TV screen. She was interested in politics, and she always voted, though she never told me how she cast her vote. She was not a social person: she spent her time with her family and her colleagues, and rarely mixed beyond those circles. My mum believed in honesty, independence of mind and not being a hypocrite. She brought me up to know that feminism was essential and that words and language mattered, deeply.

My dad – well, it’s harder to describe my dad, because he’s well and truly still with us and will pop along shortly to contradict everything I say. But here’s my attempt. Born and bred in Edinburgh, he grew up in the shadow of Tynecastle and in the midst of maroon jerseys, leaving him with a lifelong love of Hearts FC. On leaving school armed with an indignation that has never left him at the impact the iniquitous eleven-plus had on his schooling, he took up a demanding apprenticeship as a compositor in the printing trade, breaking off to do his national service in the RAF. Stationed in England, he was lonely but also invigorated by his first opportunity to mix as an equal with men from social backgrounds that were worlds away from his own. Like my mum, he believes in the power of the written word and the importance of not only saying what you mean but also being able to spell it.

Both of my parents would often bemoan Scotland’s position as an oft-forgotten outpost at the top of the country, and criticise UK politicians for their lack of interest in our lives. I grew up understanding that we were not well served by our government.  Those were my first steps down the path to a Yes vote. But it was my brother who ensured I stayed on that road.

Three years older than I, he threw himself with enviable certainty into SNP activism as soon as he arrived at university. I watched with admiration as he chaired the student SNP branch, criss-crossing the country to speak at events, hand out flyers and posters, persuade and cajole and occasionally harangue, all in between going to gigs and parties and doing all sorts of other things that seemed terribly exciting to a shy mixed-up wee fifteen year old lassie.

He it was who showed me that optimism was possible, that change was possible, that nothing needed to be as it was. He it was who inspired me to do my own research, consider my own views, and eventually arrive at the same conclusion.

What’s the point in this story? We are none of us born nationalists, conservatives, radicals or greens. We acquire our labels and we choose our actions, informed by our history and our hopes for the future. The way the debate has been framed in its latter stages, you’d think Scots were all firmly in one camp or another, hurling insults and occasionally eggs at the other side, resolutely divided on every issue.

But that’s not true. Of course it’s not true. Most of us have some sort of story to tell of how we have arrived at our vote. It will involve family, and history, and heart and head and home and goodness knows what else. Some of us are still making up our minds, and might not be sure of our vote even as we enter the booth. Few of us are deaf to the arguments opposing our decision, and most of us have weighed our choices heavily over the days, months and years gone by.

So here we stand. Quietly, loudly, shyly or proudly, we have made our way to our positions and we stand ready to make them known.

The last few days have been hard. So much of the media coverage has made it sound as though we should be ashamed of ourselves for daring to reconsider our status. But I’m not ashamed.  I’m hopeful, and fond of my past, and excited about the future, and proud of us all for the way in which we have conducted this public examination of our souls. We have shown dignity, intelligence, humour and compassion. We will need all that and more in the days to come.

Tonight, like brides throughout the ages, I’ll go to bed, but I won’t sleep. Tomorrow is Scotland’s big day. May it also be our best.