Laura Cameron-Lewis: A Letter from Portobello

One of the loveliest things about taking part in David Greig’s All Back to Bowie’s Fringe show was the chance to meet some amazingly talented women.  Singers, poets and writers.  Laura Cameron-Lewis is definitely two of these, and arguably a poet too,  On my third venture into the Bowie yurt (sorry, they’re done now…) in St Andrew’s Square, I got the chance to meet Laura and hear her Letter from Portobello.  Boy did it strike a chord or three. And it’s all the better for only obliquely referencing the Great Debate.

Laura can be found on twitter @lauraclewis and she blogs here 

Letter from Portobello

I have two infant children. I’m what the marketeers like to describe as the yummy mummy.  My god that phrase makes me sick.  I might have a womb, but I’m a serious person with shit to do in the world, a person who makes shit happen.
But that’s not how this world sees me, this world sees me as a gap, a vacant space to be occupied, a redundant consuming machine who lives in a bolstered world of coffee mornings, boden catalogues and cuteness.  If you’re lucky, that is.  If you’re among the 1%, the woman behind the man who makes enough money to ensure your financial redundancy in  manner of the lifestyle magazine.  The rest of us get to battle it out against that prejudice whilst facing the reality of the brutal poverty that comes with not working, or the brutal combination of near poverty whilst trying to keep your place in a workplace culture that discriminates against you for your motherhood whilst making no such assumptions about the fathers in your workplace.

How are you going to go back to work?  I was asked.  Never have I head that question asked of an expectant father.

And then when it was clear I was staying in the workplace – ‘I wouldn’t give that role to her, she’s about to have a baby’ said by a female colleague who, shockingly, is a mother of two herself.

Having a baby made me invisible.

It made me invisible on buses, trains and in the busy street as streams of commuters barge in front of me because MY journey isn’t important.  I have a pushchair to manage as well as my laptop and bag bursting with board papers, but even if I wasn’t on the clock of my paid labour, the assumption is that I’m not working. I have become, albeit temporarily, like the elderly, the sick, the young and the disabled.  We see each other, we give each other space and consideration because we understand what it is not to be able to get from A to B without the fear of broken pavements, lack of space, ignorant cotravellers and at the end of it perhaps the inabililty to enter a building. How does one also get into the workplace when it takes all you can muster just to get into town. This world is a hostile place to those that are invisible.

I have a disability and I have a baby.  Unless I am able to work, I am invisible economically.

Which is baffling, because raising children is proving to be the most productive time in in my life, in personal terms and in terms of the economic investment I’m making for our future society.  Real investment is about creating value, and a huge amount of work goes into rearing children to be good productive citizens, and that work largely goes unpaid, whether it’s done by me, their father, their granny, their Dey, or our neighbours.  We also pay for a wonderful nursery which enriches our child even more, the costs of that nursery are the equivalent of the living wage you’d receive for working that time.  We know that most childcare is done with no financial value attached.  Most childcare, (as with volunteering and caring, is done by women) mothers and grandmothers are neither valued by the labour market, or by the state benefits system (women who haven’t paid their national insurance contributions by working, receive no state pension entitlement).

Becoming a mother made me see that the status quo, this world was not made for me.

Chances are, it probably isn’t made for you, either.

This world is made for the man who doesn’t have a family to look after, because someone else does that for him.  Its made for the man who doesn’t have a disability or condition that prevents him from driving a car, running, standing for long periods of time, or dodging obstacles whilst walking.  He probably has nothing to carry or has someone to do that for him.  This world is made for the man who is young enough not to fear falling over or jostled by those that rush past, but is not so young that he needs help getting about, or needs places to play  learn to swim or ride his bike.

As a young, relatively able bodied woman, having a child and getting sick gave me a real glimpse of what the world is like for everyone else, who can’t pretend to be that man. Thanks to generations of feminists, as a young professional woman, you can sometimes inhabit his world, for a while… but once you reach a childbearing age, even if you never want to have a family you find out differently.

You see, women are always getting themselves ‘pregnant’.
Themselves.

Why is childcare not men’s policies?
Why is equality not men’s policies?
Why do we not have a universal citizen’s income (which Thatcher discovered in the 70s is cheaper than the current benefits system) Why don’t we have this proven system that would value all the invisible work of women, the disabled, the underemployed?

Why?

Because imagine, if our Board rooms, the Westminster government, was full of people like us as well as those men who don’t have to worry about pick ups and drop offs, illness, or how to get into that meeting venue using a wheelchair.
They don’t want us in their board room or in government, because there’d be less space for them.  They’d become a little less relevant.

So we can continue to accept the way things are by dutifully giving it our vote, our consent.

Or we could do something a little harder and stand behind some different ideas – we can choose to stop propping up a status quo that only benefits that middle aged privileged man. It’s scary, because we’re so schooled into thinking that we have to side with the winners to get on in life. But I’m going to suggest we stop doing that and stop giving that man legitimacy.  His model of success and wellbeing suits only him.

There are other ways of doing things that will work, the New Economics foundation’s 21 Hours as industrial policy, Copenhagenized transport infrastructure, equalities considerations and flexible working applied to all posts up to Board level.

It can be done, but their will isn’t there. So how about we exert OUR WILL and start siding with plans that benefit us and people like us, that value other ways of being and other ways of doing things.  How about we place our support behind things that will give us the opportunity to have a voice, to be able to influence things, to make a difference.

Just think what could happen if all our skill and graft was visible and made new things happen instead of using all our energy struggling to make this weighted system work for us.

We are here. 

We are not invisible.