Who Are You Calling Crazy Cat Lady?

‘Who here has children?’ No hands raised.

‘Who here has a cat?’ A smattering of hands…

This was Jody Day’s opening gambit at the Who’s Afraid of the Crazy Cat Lady? session at the WOW Festival a couple of weeks back. I had baulked slightly at the title. I knew it was tongue-in-cheek, but really? Are we not done with that stereotype yet? It seems not. Last week, while I was still writing this post, The Telegraph used a photo of Holly Brockwell cradling a cat as the main image in its story about her sterilisation at the age of 29. Lazy, predictable, patronising photography.

Day went on to say that: “the most shamed stereotype is a single unmarried woman over 40 without children”. As someone who ticks all four of those descriptors I don’t like this statement and I’m not sure I really agree with it either. For sure, in certain sections of the media, independent women seem to be feared and are therefore pilloried, but to be dubbed the most shamed feels a little strong. While I wouldn’t say I have ever felt shamed, people certainly make huge assumptions.

The predominant assumption is that women who don’t have children must have wanted them. A few years back at a previous WOW Festival, Day, who runs a network for childless women called Gateway Women, introduced me to the terms childless and childfree; childless refers to women who wanted children but either through medical reasons or circumstance did not have them, while childfree is the term for women who made a distinct choice that children were not for them. But whether a woman is childless or childfree, it really isn’t anyone’s right to question or provide opinion unless the discussion has been invited. Nobody can know what emotional or physical struggles may exist behind a single or partnered woman not having children.

A frequent slight levelled at the childfree is that we are selfish. If recognising that the change to my life as I know and love it would be seismic and unbearable, and I would likely resent a child, makes me selfish, then I will live with that label. And if my decision means our overcrowded world and stretched public services feel the ripple effect of my selfishness, then I will suck that up too.

The suggestion that does sting is that a life without children is somehow unfulfilling or incomplete. A complete and fulfilling life is the one that is best for the person living it, not the one that’s best for the person sitting in judgement. There are many things in my life that make me deeply happy and personally fulfilled (including this blog) and I am involved in things that I think make me good for my community and the wider world. I am unspeakably proud of the business I run and the difference it makes to disadvantaged people and communities in the UK and around the world.

One of the most fulfilling things in my life is the role I am able to play in the lives of other people’s children. You see, not wanting your own children doesn’t mean you don’t want children in your life. There is an African proverb that I love and subscribe to – ‘it takes a whole village to raise a child’ – and I take my role in that village very seriously. Children need role models living different lives and adults they can trust outside of the immediate family. I have said to my friends that I want my home to be the safe place that when the inevitable teenage tension kicks in the kids can ‘escape’ to, while the parents can (hopefully!) be reassured that the kids will be OK. And when they’re are ready to have their first solo adventures in London then I hope it will be my spare room they crash in. I have an Auntie like that and her role in my life has been transformative.

It’s the politics of the issue I am most interested in. Today, 20% of women aged 45 are childless or childfree and there are 1.5 million women in their 40s and 50s who do not have children. It is likely that this percentage will continue to grow. Yet political rhetoric and policy generally speaks to ‘hardworking families’. Who is speaking to or thinking about us? And it’s not just about children, it’s about being single too. Ten percent of adults aged 25 – 44 now live alone. That is a huge section of the voting population whose votes are pretty bloody important.

The last time there was such a large population of women in the UK who were single and without children was after WW1 when the number of casualties meant there were two million more young women (known as The Surplus Women) than young men. The war ended in 1919. It had only been in 1918 that women over 30 had won the right to vote and it would be another decade before there was parity in voting age for men and women. The Surplus Women had limited political power. We have greater potential to be a force for change.

This month saw the release of Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. It charts social progress in America and looks at how it has been influenced by changing marriage patterns. Day quoted a segment from the book that evidences the impact the single woman vote had on Obama’s victory. The book concludes that through the decades single women in America have been the primary drivers of social change.

Of course, one of the biggest game changers for women and their decision around marriage is shifting attitudes towards sex. In an interview about her book Traister spoke of how previous generations of American women “were reliant on marriage as a way to have a sex life that was socially sanctioned”. Singled Out by Virginia Nicolson documents the lives of The Surplus Women and quotes a ‘sex philosopher’ as recommending the single girl “keep sex in a strong-box, with other interests sitting on the lid to hold it tight”.

Happily, I don’t have to put sex in a box or get married to enjoy it! Of course, sex and living independently is not always an easily navigable thing. You’re horny on a Sunday afternoon but by Tuesday when you have a plan you’re more interested in eating pasta and pesto and watching The Night Manager on iPlayer. You arrive back in the UK from a work trip the day after a lover leaves for a month in America. You’re excited to see one of your favourite people to be naked with but then hormones get the better of you and you cry-talk for three hours and then realise it’ll probably be another fortnight till your diaries match and you can suck his cock. A partner becomes uncomfortable that his wife’s secondary partnership has ended and even though she tries to allay his concerns he still ends your fledgling relationship.

But aren’t there hiccups, hormones and hurdles to get over however you carve out your relationships? I am much more comfortable having my own space than sharing it and I don’t want to be anyone’s priority or to have to consider anyone else in the decisions I make about my own life, so these arrangements work for me. And I am happy. Day closed her talk by making the point that despite all the progress we have made, a woman in her 40s or 50s who is happy being single is still seen as countercultural but, she said, “you cannot shame me with my singleness or my childlessness.”

Wicked Wednesday... a place to be wickedly sexy or sexily wicked


The lovely Maria Opens Up was 40 this week, a landmark that can’t possibly go unnoticed on the Exposing 40 blog. 

Those of you who follow Maria on Twitter will know her online moniker is Maria Sibylla and her handle is @MSM1647. What you may not know is that Maria Sibylla Merian, born in 1647, was a talented scientific illustrator who David Attenborough (hero!) regards as one the most important entomologists the world has ever known.

Divorced from her husband, she took her daughter to the jungles of Suriname and turned her love of butterflies and insects into her work. In the early 1700s, way before cameras existed and when common belief was that insects were horrid creatures born of mud, she published a beautiful book of paintings that charted the life cycle of the insect world. Today her illustrations are regarded as art and science. What a woman!

There’s nothing very scientific about this photo, but there’s some pretty insects! Happy Birthday, Maria. Welcome to Club Forties – it’s a fabulous place to be! Xx


A Brush with Spirited Bodies

Lucy & E40 (L-R) by Patsy Hans

Lucy & E40 by Patsy Hans

Trigger: violence against women

I stood naked on stage, back-to-back with another woman, arms raised as if protecting ourselves. The eyes of 40 other women were on us. I swallowed the lump in my throat and blinked back the tears. Feelings of vulnerability surged through me.

“In the UK, prosecutions for violence against women include domestic abuse, rape, forced marriage, stalking, honour-based violence, trafficking, female genital mutilation, child abuse, and offences related to prostitutions and pornography.”

“Around the world a woman is killed in an honour crime every 90 minutes. If a woman is seen to have bought shame on the family by refusing to enter an arranged marriage, looking too long at a boy, or even being raped, a man is free to kill her as long as another family member forgives him.”

The tears I blinked back were not for me. I personally did not feel vulnerable. Quite the opposite. I was enveloped in warmth and good will. I was mentally stilled by the concentration of staying physically still, absorbing the meditative silence of those concentrating on their drawing. The surge of emotion as we held positions that spoke of violence and trauma were for the women whose lives I was imagining as the words above were read out. Somehow, the experience of feeling so strong through being completely naked enabled me to feel more acutely the vulnerability of the women whose stories we were hearing.

I hadn’t really expected the experience of modelling for life drawing to be particularly emotional, but then I am not sure what I had expected. Participating was a spur of the moment decision. Reading the programme for the WOW Festival the night before, I had spotted that Spirited Bodies was running a life drawing session and audience members were free to model. I tweeted them in the morning and then turned up really early. I planted myself on the front row, a complete fraud amongst the people who wanted a prime position because they could actually draw. I didn’t want to draw, I wanted to take all my clothes off!

I didn’t want to take my clothes off quite as much as Nat who walked to the back of the room and stripped naked before realising the only other people who were so far naked were the Spirited Bodies cast! When audience participation actually started, unencumbered by clothes as she was, she was first on stage. Waiting for the rest of us to peel off the layers, she described seeing “a line of naked amazingness proudly walking on stage.”

And it was a proud feeling. A slightly out of body feeling, but also proud. Looking into the audience there was a sea of smiling faces and a ripple of applause. Looking around the other volunteers I noted that we were all wearing the same slightly dappy grins as we looked to the more experienced models for direction. It struck me that everyone’s face was open and warm and full of anticipation. I didn’t know any of these women but it felt safe.

We settled self-consciously into our first pose. “We’re going for a drink after this,” I muttered not very quietly. A collective chuckle and quick agreement. Later, in the bar, three of us who posed chatted to Patsy, one of the artists. She commented on how nice it was seeing the camaraderie that existed amongst those of us on stage. I am glad the audience could see that because up there it felt really tangible. While the segment on trauma and violence was an incredibly powerful and emotional experience, at times it was also really bloody funny.

“I have cramp in my thumb.” “What?!”

“My thighs are really sweaty.”  

“I was paranoid my period was going to arrive.” “So was I!” 

“Farting would have been the worst thing to happen!” 

But most of all it was humbling and uplifting. On stage were a group of amazing women of all shapes, sizes, ages and abilities, trusting the women in the audience. And in the audience were women using the trust we put in them to find their own meditative space as they sketched. There was no judgement in the room, just a heady mixture of solitude and solidarity.

Thank you to Spirited Bodies for an amazing experience – I hope our paths cross again. Thank you to the artists for your work – I have credited those of you whose names I know, but please do get in touch if I haven’t and you want a link back to your site or Twitter.


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Wicked Wednesday... a place to be wickedly sexy or sexily wicked


Today at the WOW Festival I stood naked on a stage with eight other women while 40 others in the audience drew us. I have many reflections to share, not least the joy of meeting and getting naked with, and in front of, a host of utterly fabulous women! A post on that will follow in the next couple of days…

But for now I am sharing this image. Of nine I came home with this is the only one that features just me, which makes it seem most appropriate for Sinful Sunday (although I can’t wait to share the others too!). The artist was Annabel Bentley and I think captured me really well, although it will be interesting to hear what those of you who know me and have seen the whole me think. The most remarkable thing is that we only held each pose for ten minutes so this image took just 600 seconds. What talent! Thank you for sharing it with me, Annabel. xx

IMG_6114 (2)

Sinful Sunday

Grey pubes, YAY!

“Oh, I don’t know, but as long as I meet my husband before I get grey pubes, that’s OK.”

2015-07-25 09.49.09About eight or nine years ago this was one of my stock comedy retorts to people’s questions about my intention or desire to settle down. Depending on how well I knew the person it either made them laugh or made them feel awkward. If they felt awkward they probably didn’t know me well enough to have asked the question in the first place, so I felt no remorse!

Then, I was 32/33. Wedding season was pretty much behind us; the matches had happened and the hatching was starting. I, meanwhile, was not necessarily floundering, but was certainly wondering. Wondering if the urge to settle down would hit me. And wondering if there was something wrong with me for feeling vaguely appalled at the prospect when so many wanted it so desperately.

I’d like to say the fading of my pubes was chosen as the deadline for getting my head round my desired relationship status because it was such a way-off-in-the-distance landmark it gave me sufficient time for meaningful thought and reflection. But that would be a lie. I chose it because at 32 the prospect of grey pubes seemed, well, a bit ick and unattractive. Shorthand for ‘getting old and everything’s going a bit downhill now’. I somehow thought I should be sorted before the physical signs of age really started to creep in. As Chelsea Summers wrote in The Guardian last year: “the stray grey short and curly feels like a harbinger of mortality.”

Fast forward to April 2015 and *avert your eyes* – I FIND A GREY PUBE!

I was sat on the loo at the time. I gasped. I did a double-take. I peered closer, then sat bolt upright, eyes widening.  I looked back down, gave it a sharp tug and it was liberated. Then I sat there, holding it between thumb and forefinger – staring, fascinated. I held it up to the light. I pulled it straight. Yes, definitely brown at one end and white at the other.

‘Gosh,’ I thought, ‘today’s the day!’

This was the day when the emotional walls would come crashing in on me and being single would suddenly be AWFUL because of GREY PUBES and OH MY GOD, IT’S ALL OVER, I’M OLD. But of course, that’s not what happened at all because, unlike 32-year-old me who really wasn’t at peace with herself, 41-year-old me is. Plus, more importantly, I remembered where I was; I wasn’t sat on the loo at home, I was sat on the loo in an orphanage in Brazil and I had a job to do. Seriously! This really wasn’t the time or the place to be self-indulgently contemplating a grey pube with a wry grin on my face!

Aside from the fact there really are a million more significant things to worry about in the world than the colour of pubes, I also no longer need a false deadline to find a husband because I am comfortable saying I don’t want one at the moment. And this symbol of aging and unattractiveness is nonsense because I feel significantly better about myself than I ever have at any age. And I have men who add value to my life, physically, intellectually and creatively and I don’t need them to be more than they are. I don’t feel like I am settling for second best with anyone, I feel like I have carved out a life that works for me.

I tell you what though, the self-belief may be rock solid but that doesn’t stop me keeping a close eye on that little strip of hair. There’s only been one so far but if any more of the little grey fuckers come through they’ll be plucked out just as quickly!

Wicked Wednesday... a place to be wickedly sexy or sexily wicked