Self esteem

Isn’t it great when your self esteem is so borked – I mean, truly fucked – that you spend your time secretly trying to alter yourself so that your attributes match that list of attributes that others seem to find attractive or likeable or popular?  Better looking, more intelligent, more empathetic, better dressed, etc.  Wondering why Person X is fawned over while, no matter what you do, you feel like…how is it described in the film ‘The Equalizer’?  “When you look at me, what do you see?  The answer’s nothing.  …like a bottle cap or a piece of lint…just a thing to remove”

Where’s my self esteem?  In the toilet, where it belongs.

Maybe that’s the missing attribute.

What is a man?

What does it mean to be a man?  A pointed question.  One that’s likely provoked many an hour of chin-stroking in people far more learned than me.  It feels pertinent to me as a carer.  Whether other male carers feel the same, I can’t say.  I can only say that the question lodges itself in my head from time to time and provokes a good deal of self-analysis.

Recently, I found myself listening to Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4.  I’m not so narrow-minded as to assume “Ugh, women’s stuff – not for me.”, or that I couldn’t find it interesting, so I didn’t tune out.  After a few segments, the programme featured an interview with Jody Day.  Ms. Day has founded Gateway Women, and written a book, Rocking The Life Unexpected, both of which were inspired by her search for support whilst grieving at the realisation that she will never have children.  I listened to her story and how she described her feelings and experiences as a woman at the time her peers were becoming mothers.  She recalled feeling at odds with people around her, as though she was viewed with a little suspicion.  Perhaps she wasn’t fulfilling the stereotypical role of “woman as nurturer/carer”.  This caused my pointed question to lodge itself once again.

Ms. Day’s story touched a couple of raw nerves.  1. I am a carer.  2. I have no children and won’t be having any.

If a woman’s role in life is to be nurturer/carer (I don’t believe this to be true, by the way, but please bear with me for the sake of this post), then what role does a man have?  What’s the male stereotype?  Provider?  Hunter/gatherer?  And do I fulfil that role?  While I see this stereotype to be as outmoded as the idea of a woman’s sole role to be a nurturer/carer, it doesn’t stop me from questioning my place in the world.  A feeling similar to that described by Ms. Day.  I sometimes wonder how people view me because of what I do for MW.  I suppose it shouldn’t matter but it does.  It’s important to me to feel like I fit in somewhere.

I grew up in a shipbuilding area during the 70s/80s.  The “hunter/gatherer” stereotype was everywhere you looked; originating at home, and reinforced at school or with friends.  Add the same messages from the media and you have a powerful influence around you.  When I was a kid, I assumed this was the stereotype to follow.  When I began my working life (albeit not in industry) and started having relationships, I still assumed that I would be the ‘hunter/gatherer’ – especially when I thought about marriage and a family in my future (more on this later).  I didn’t foresee that the ‘role’ I would have in my 40s would be so different from that stereotype.

Prior to being a carer, I didn’t know a single male carer.  None whatever.  Of course, I do now.  I’ve met quite a few, either in person or via Twitter.  But prior to 2005, I had no concept of what it entailed to be a man who is a carer.  It was a cultural role that never existed for me to learn about.  It’s very rarely, if ever, covered in the media.  I know there are occasional media references to men who are carers but their role in the cultural world around us is never explained.  It’s as though they’ve just beamed down and started caring.  I didn’t get beamed down.  I’ve been through (and am still going through) a self-examination in terms of who I am as a man, similar to Ms. Day’s self-examination as a woman.  I’m not the “provider” that I expected to be.  I’m not going to go into detail about our financial affairs but our circumstances dictate that MW’s share of the household income is higher than mine.  I am a full-time carer.  A role that doesn’t appear to be valued too highly, regardless of gender.  I am a male, full-time carer.  I have assumed the nurturer/carer role that society appears to deem only suitable to women.  Even anthropologists are making inferences to the size of caring males’ testicles!!  (Don’t believe everything you read!)  When I tell someone I’m a full-time carer, the reply tends to start with, “Oh…..”, followed by a pregnant pause.  They’ve no frame of reference for meeting someone who has that role by circumstance rather than by choice, as a care-worker might.  It’s as though what I do – and by extension, who I am – isn’t “natural”.  I might as well be an alien, or a talking animal.  So, what does this make me in the eyes of other people?

The second raw nerve was about children.  The Women’s Hour interview continued, and referred to women who find themselves childless by circumstance.  (That is, they’ve not actively chosen to be child-free.)  This is a truth I’ve had to come to terms with myself.  I don’t have any children, and I’m not going to have any.  Both Ms. Day and the interviewer acknowledged that there are a number of men who find themselves childless but their experiences are different.  She’s right.  But it’s no less hard to come to terms with.  Just as I’m not a carer through choice but by circumstance, so I’m childless in the same way.  MW and I wanted to have a family.  We tried for ages but it didn’t happen.  Abortion has been part of both our lives so we assumed that there was no biological issue.  We considered IVF.  However, at that time, our energy was taken up coping with my Dad’s illness.  MW’s symptoms began very soon after Dad died.  The severity of MW’s initial MS relapse put a stop to our dreams at the time, and its ever-debilitating progressiveness has done the rest.  Although we both know what the reality of the situation is, we don’t discuss it often, save for brief “I wish we could have been parents” conversations, prompted by a TV programme or seeing a cute child when we’re out.  But these conversations never last long.  Rationally, I realise that caring for MW is too demanding to consider adoption or fostering.  But I feel very much unfulfilled as a man – a propagator of my species.  The prospect of my genes dying with me leaves a visceral scar.

Meanwhile, all my friends have gone on to become parents.  (MW’s friends have tended to be a bit older than her so the dynamic is a little different)  Ms Day spoke about how she felt a greater distance from her peers as they all had a common thread that maintains their interaction – i.e. having children.  I guess it comes naturally for parents to talk about their children: schooling, growth spurts, etc., even to strangers.  Becoming a carer is a great way to lose friends.  Not becoming a parent is another.  I sometimes sense people my age struggling to talk to me once they ascertain that I don’t have children.  It’s as though their entire catalogue of conversation is geared towards their children – either as a conversation starter or as a specialist subject to the exclusion of everything else.  Since I don’t have children, it’s assumed I won’t have anything in common with them – which I find strange – so conversation stops.  Perhaps I should turn the tables and act awkwardly towards non-carers?  No, maybe not.

You might read this and say, “what does it matter what other people think?”.  And you would probably make a very valid point.  The thing is, I look at myself in the mirror sometimes and wonder how I match up against the archetypal male ideal (which may or may not exist) that society/media would have me measure myself against.  I also wonder how other people score me against that same ideal.  Not enough to keep me awake nights but I do think about it.

So, what does it mean to be a man?  Maybe it’s all just bollocks.

The internet – judge, jury and executioner.

It’s been a quite week for judging people, hasn’t it?  It’s been judged that the News of the World is no longer worthy of publication and the 200 mostly innocent people now out of jobs are somewhere beneath amoeba in the grand scheme of life.  Journalists give their judgements on celebrities’ private lives, while those same journalists have their choice of writing subject judged as being too trivial for intelligent consideration ( e.g. Sali Hughes on Cheryl Cole ).  The world seems to be permanently wearing its collective wigs and robes in readiness for passing judgement on some subject or other.

One such subject of intense judgement was brought to my attention over the last week courtesy of @BrokenOfBritain on Twitter.  The story of Shana Williams, a woman whose husband was severely disabled in a car crash, was published by the Daily Mail’s Femail section.  The story appears to me to centre around two of her decisions: 

i ) not to be her husband’s full time carer, and

ii ) to begin a relationship with another man whilst still married to her husband.

I have a great deal of sympathy for Shana.  The life she looked forward to when she married has been denied her.  She’s dealt with it all in the way she’s thought to be most appropriate to her and now, with this article, her decisions are very much in The Court of Public Opinion.  I have a great deal of sympathy with Shana because of the things that I’ve previously touched upon in this blog and other things I’ve not let out into the public domain.

The article states that Shana has some professional experience of caring as a nurse and has decided that being a full-time carer, a mother to two sons and continuing full-time employment was beyond her.  She arranged for her husband to be placed in a care home.  I don’t envy the decision she’s made but I do respect it.  And I will not judge her.  Being a full-time carer is a demanding role – both physically and mentally.  I didn’t choose to do it.  By which I mean I didn’t apply for it and I didn’t study any specific qualifications to do it.  I do it by dint of the fact that the person to be cared for is my wife.  The woman I fell in love with and married.  Don’t assume that I care for her with a smile on my face and lightness in my heart every day.  That’s not true.  There are an increasing number of times when the exact opposite is true.  I chose freely to do this and it’s a decision I make every day – hell, sometimes every minute.  Shana chose differently and has my respect for that.

The paper then goes on to touch upon the fact that Shana has recently begun a relationship with a man other than her husband.  This second decision seems to have exorcised those people who love nothing more than to spray their bile on comment sections.  Let’s make this clear, Shana didn’t start this relationship with another man immediately after her husband went into care.  I’m not going to try and guess what she was thinking.  She may have lay awake for many nights contemplating the possibility before beginning the relationship.  It might have been an instant attraction that took her by surprise.  I don’t know and the article doesn’t make it clear.  I’ve read many similar stories on carers’ forums from people who care for their husbands/wives/partners.  Some writers have their own solutions to being in an extremely difficult position, i.e. being in an unfulfilling relationship – from escorts to affairs to accepted celibacy.  Others have no idea how to deal with this most personal and intimate of subjects.  The one common denominator seems to be the anguish they put themselves through .  Many, many weeks, months or years of frustration.  As I’ve written, Shana may well have been through this too.  But, however her new relationship began, she did not deserve the raging torrent of enmity poured on her personal life from malicious commenters.

The Mail article states that “…only those who have made such a self-sacrificing choice have, ( Shana ) believes, the right to judge her."  I disagree.  She deserves the right not to  be judged AT ALL.  The right not to have her character assassinated by those who are full-time carers OR those who have no semblance of idea what she’s gone through to reach her decisions.  I’ve written about being judged as a carer before.  I’m not looking to be cast as a paragon of virtue or an icon of immorality because I’m neither.  I’m just me.  I face many of the same inner struggles as Shana but our circumstances are different.  I don’t know what lays around the corner with my wife’s MS.  I don’t know if I’ll reach a breaking point and want to run a mile, never to return.  All I do know is that, like Shana Williams found, my life – and, yes, that of my wife – is not what I envisaged when we met 9 years ago.   Our relationship is radically different from when we met too.  And IF my outlook to caring changes in the future, I reserve the right to have my decisions respected and not to be judged either.  You can shove your wig and robe up your arse.