Does every little girl REALLY want to be a princess?

A few weeks ago we were doing our food shopping. Little P was sitting in the trolley and I was strategically trying to wrestle a bottle of hand sanitiser away from her at the till (don’t ask, she has a thing about small bottles!!). There was a very charming American lady in the queue who started chatting to us. She asked Little P her name, her age and the usual stuff. When we were leaving we waved goodbye to her and she turned to Little P and said “You’re such a beautiful little girl, you’re like a real life princess”. We continued on our way and as we were packing the car she asked me “What’s a princess Mama?”. I was completely stumped. I had no answer for the child. The daughter of a King and Queen? That answer would only lead to “but what’s a King and Queen Mama?”. Because the fact is that princesses are no longer relevant in her life or any of our lives anymore. They’re a medieval concept so why do we hold them up as an aspiration? In this time of modernity and freedom and autonomy why on earth would anyone want to be a princess?

Like many people I am completely captivated by the Meghan and Harry romance. It put a smile on my face to hear their good news this week despite the fact that they have no relevance to my life whatsoever! Partly because it’s always inspiring to see two people so obviously in love and partly because it’s an interesting, slightly unconventional romance. Of course it was almost impossible to avoid the media coverage of their wedding and the one “fact” I read/heard repeatedly was that apparently every little girl wants to be a princess. So what is it about the princess trope that just won’t go away.

Is it the lovely dresses? We can all wear as many lovely dresses as we want, they’re not the sole preserve of princesses. It’s a free world. Is it something to do with money & wealth. Again that’s something anyone can achieve if that’s what they really want. Much better to aspire to be a business tycoon or an entrepreneur if money is the goal. Then at least the money you earn will be your own. Is it something to do with beauty? Surely we all know by now that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Anyway a good hairdresser and the right make up can make anyone look as good as a princess.

Maybe it’s a notion about having all of these things without having to put too much effort into getting them. Having it all just by being entitled to it. But I suspect that if any of us could see what life is really like beyond the palace walls we might feel differently. Every family milestone meticulously documented by the media, little freedom of expression and minimum privacy are just some of the downsides for a modern day prince or princess.

I also think it’s universally acknowledged by now that the fairytale story of a princess waiting to be rescued by her prince is one that belongs in another time. It’s been turned on it’s head in popular culture over and over again. My personal favourite has to be “Shrek”. This animated tale mirrors real life perfectly where, at times, we’re all the rescuer and the rescue-ee depending on circumstances.  One could certainly argue that in this modern Windsor romance it is Harry that has been ‘rescued’ by Meghan and not the other way around.

It’s worth noting that Meghan Markle is not a princess. She has given up a highly successful career and a considerable amount of her freedom to take on her new role as the Duchess of Sussex. It would be difficult for any parent to see that as a desirable life choice for their daughter. Of course she wants to be with the person she loves but I suspect she also feels she’s going to be able to make some significant changes in the world in her new position. She already has a history of involvement in various charities including ‘World Vision’ and ‘One Young World’.

So someone who makes sacrifices for the greater good and wants to make a real difference in the world? Forget princesses, these are the kind of real life qualities that can provide inspiration for young women everywhere. Anyway, as Meghan herself knows, it’s a wonderful and exciting world out there for girls with plenty to look forward to beyond tiaras and fancy dresses. And for her and Harry I suspect the best is yet to come!

Future Proofing ‘The Rose’

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When I was a little girl my Nana used to have a Rose of Tralee party so we could all watch it together on the TV. She would buy my favourite biscuits (Toffy Pops) and I was allowed to stay up way past my bedtime. I can remember sitting on the sofa listening to all the debate about who should win, the comprehensive (and often harsh) critique of the dresses and of course the fulsome praise for host extraordinaire Uncle Gaybo. I certainly enjoyed the sense of occasion and the excitement of staying up late and trying to predict the winner. But I do remember being a bit bemused by the show itself. My Nana would often say to me ‘Maybe when you’re older you could be on the Rose of Tralee. Would you like that?’ Being a shy introverted eight year old, I always just smiled and nodded. But I would internally cringe at the thought of being interviewed on national TV by Gay Byrne. In my own childish way I knew it would have made her heart burst with pride should it ever have come to pass.

Many years later, although I didn’t make it to Tralee as a Rose, it was one of my very first TV jobs. My Nana was as proud as if I were wearing the winning tiara. However it was my first live TV experience and it was far more stressful than enjoyable for me.  Although I was mostly distracted by my work duties there was something about watching young women, just like me, preparing to compete for a sash and tiara that left me feeling distinctly uncomfortable. Although it wasn’t a beauty pageant, it felt suspiciously like one.

Now I find myself living on the very doorstep of The Festival, as it’s locally known. From a distance it’s easy to be cynical about the Lovely Girls competition. It seems oddly old fashioned, appearing to reward an idealised version of femininity that finds it’s origins in a 19th century ballad. Many a disparaging article has been written about it and there will be many more to come I’m sure. But living here it’s not so easy to be disparaging. Witnessing first hand the economic boost that the festival brings to Tralee, and the surrounding areas, I see the positive impact that it has on local business. Although a relatively small town The Rose has literally put Tralee on the world map.

But how does a festival that began in 1959 keep itself relevant in a changing world? Well in 2008 the festival lifted the ‘ban’ on unmarried mothers, allowing them to enter for the first time. Better late than never I suppose. Once again in 2014 it was propelled into the 21st century when winner Maria Walsh revealed that she was gay. She was particularly engaged and engaging, outspoken on a number of issues and proved to be one of the best ambassadors the festival has ever appointed. Similarly in 2016 another opportunity presented itself to the festival in the shape of Sydney Rose Brianna Parkins. Ireland was in the throes of debate about the controversial eighth amendment. Parkins bravely used her opportunity in the spotlight to call for a referendum giving Irish women control over their reproductive rights . Unfortunately (and some would say not unexpectedly) Parkins was not crowned that year. A much missed opportunity, in my view, to prove that the Festival truly is about female empowerment. This year’s glimmer of hope for me is Carlow Rose Shauna Ray Lacey. The first mother to appear on the competition stage since the festival began. She is a beautician, young Mum, breastfeeding advocate and keen DIY enthusiast. Essentially, a modern young woman.

To be effective ambassadors for the festival the winning Rose needs to be reflective of modern society. We want our daughters to grow up believing they can be anything. Gay, straight or gender fluid, political activist or musician, mum or teacher, accountant or astronaut. So if The Rose of Tralee is to move on into the next century, and I really hope it does, it needs to be representative of today’s young women. Because the festival does have an underlying positive message. That message is about celebrating the achievements of young women. It’s also about female solidarity and support. But that message often remains hidden beneath the shiny wrapping of a beauty pageant.

So what would my Nana think about the modern Rose of Tralee? She was a modern woman in her own time. A career woman who travelled and married comparatively late in life. So I imagine she’s up there in TV heaven loving every minute of it. And this year she would probably tell me to pin my hopes on the Carlow Rose. Someone pass the Toffee Pops please!

I’ve arrived at ‘Women’s Christmas’ with no women

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I’ve always found it relatively easy to make friends. There was no shortage of them at school, college or work. But now I find myself at a stage in life where I’ve moved to a new county and become a stay at home parent with no obvious outlet for meeting new people. It was easy before. Playing together in the schoolyard or meeting up in lectures, friendships just developed organically. Working in the media meant spending more time than usual with colleagues so friendships became even more prolific.

In my twenties and early thirties I found it tricky to keep up with my friend’s birthday nights out, wedding invitations, catch up dinners and weekends away. I was too naive to realise that although my friendships may have developed easily enough they require maintenance, just like any relationship. Maintenance that I was too distracted or too lazy to give. Far too often I took my female friendships for granted and lost many along the way.
Fortunately for me some of them were willing to put in a little more effort and I’m lucky to still have them in my life. But we only get the opportunity to meet up once or twice a year now and most communication is by phone or through social media. I miss meeting up with female friends for chats over coffee or a night out once a week and a good laugh.
I know that women will be heading out tonight to have a good time and I’d love to be joining them with my own ‘girl gang’. So if you are lucky enough to have good female friends don’t take them for granted. If you can’t meet them today then call or send a message and let them know they are appreciated. My resolution for 2018 is to make more of an effort both with my existing friends and in finding some new ones.
Christmas may be all about spending time with family but ‘Women’s Christmas’ should be all about spending time maintaining and preserving female friendships. For the things that are really worthwhile in life require a little attention.

Why women are rocking social media….

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I’ve only very recently dipped my toe in the vast ocean that is social media. Previously I was working in the media industry and spending my down time on Facebook or Twitter felt far too much like work. So I kept away. Then I left my job. moved away from friends and family and had a baby. I wanted to keep in touch, share photos and still feel part of the action so I started to dabble. First with Instagram and then when I got the notion of starting a blog I signed up to Twitter as well. Two social media accounts is more than enough for me to be getting on with at the moment thank you very much! Instagram was a big hit for me straightaway. I love the visual aspect and I find it more user friendly. I’m still a little intimidated by Twitter, I’m never quite sure what to tweet. But I’ll get the hang of it eventually and find my Twitter ‘voice’.

The one thing that has leapt out at me since I began my adventures in social media is that marvellous women are everywhere. Funny women, business women, smart women, streetwise women, young, old, mothers, celebrities, academics, farmers, writers…….they’re all there and they are shaping the social media landscape. Social media is a tool that women are working exceptionally well in a variety of ways. A few reasons strike me as to why women are so ‘good’ at social media.

Multi-tasking
There’s plenty of research to suggest that women are very proficient at multi-tasking and it’s a quality that social media certainly demands. There are high expectations when it comes to content so writing and photography are not the only skills required. Filming, presenting, editing, and using graphics are all necessary for the vlogging, instastories, podcasts and newsletters that today’s followers enjoy. Of course you have to blog, vlog, or tweet about something. So the women I follow produce rich and entertaining content online about their businesses, families, travels, books, farms and various combinations of all of the above!

Support
Despite the propaganda that has been knocking about over the decades women are immensely supportive of each other. Previous generations of women with large families and few resources had to rely on each other for support. Then, while negotiating a male dominated workplace, often the only encouragement that women received was from each other. In order to survive and thrive on social media you need support. I see examples of this every day. Women promoting each other’s businesses, giving newbies (like me!) support and encouragement, showcasing each other’s skills and expertly building an online network that is self perpetuating.

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Keeping it real
The voices that ring out above the din are those that speak with truth and with passion. Women on social media don’t hold back. For so many years certain issues were taboo subjects for public discussion on traditional media channels (that were mostly controlled by men). Now the social media channels are wide open and stories about miscarriage, abortion, sexual harassment, mental health, domestic violence, infertility and more are at last being told. And everyone now knows that they’re not just women’s issues, they never were!

A voice for change
Women are also using social media to call out injustices, mistreatment and abuse of power. Over the past number of months there have been various high profile cases involving historic cases of sexual harassment, bullying and abuse. Social media provided a collective voice for women in the entertainment business and beyond to reveal the extent and the seriousness of these accusations that then led to investigations. Ultimately women coming together on social media is bringing about a much needed change in our culture.

New media
Social media is a relatively new media and women have been right in there from the start shaping the landscape. Many of the most successful bloggers and social media influencers are women. Unlike print journalism, TV and radio women have had an important role in creating and controlling social media. As a result it feels like a media that is more egalitarian and more reflective of real life. More representative of both genders.

In the words of the Nobel prize winning Malala Yousafzai, whose blog was only the beginning of her international campaign to ensure the rights of all females to education:

“I raise up my voice—not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard…we cannot succeed when half of us are held back.”
Malala Yousafzai

Women are not just participating in the global conversation on social media, they’re setting the agendas. And about time too.

 

 

How to spot your local Atheist

 

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I am an Atheist, but you wouldn’t know it to look at me. If you observed you may notice that although I live in a small rural village I don’t attend mass in the local church, or events in the parish hall. I don’t wear ashes on my forehead or give up chocolate for Lent. I’m not married and Little P is not baptised.

It’s tricky to recognise fellow non believers. It seems a bit of a personal a question to ask outright and, contrary to popular belief, we don’t have horns (even though that would make it a lot easier for me!). If I were Catholic I could go to mass or to toddler groups in the parish hall. If I were Protestant I’d go to service, Muslim the mosque etc. But where does one meet other Atheists?

I often meet other Mums, get to know them and then they start talking about holy communion plans or asking if Little P is enrolled in the local Catholic school. I can’t help it but my heart does sink a bit.  I’m not saying that I can’t be friends with religious people – that would be madness – loads of my existing family and friends are practising Catholics and it doesn’t affect our relationship. It’s just that when you feel completely outnumbered it can get a little lonely.

As an Atheist I have always felt isolated in my (non) belief but I definitely feel more alone since we moved to Kerry. The sense of community, neighbourliness and family values in rural Ireland is wonderful and much stronger than in the Dublin suburbs. But, the only difficulty for a family like us is that those values are almost always still connected to the church.

Religion has had the benefit of centuries of tradition in building strong and faithful communities. Christianity and then catholicism have become the majority religion of choice in Ireland. I can understand why people are reluctant to move away from these religious communities even if they don’t fully believe in what they represent. They are ready made, strong, warm and welcoming communities. Sometimes I miss the comfort of them. Although I was baptised and raised in a typical Irish Catholic household I now consider myself both an Atheist and a Humanist. An Atheist because I don’t believe in any god(s) and a Humanist because I place all things human above all things spiritual. It was while I was at university studying philosophy that I began to question religion and by the time I left I was an Atheist.

But I didn’t find many like minded individuals. My family and friends range from the committed mass goers to those who believe in god but ignore the religious trappings of Catholicism. While working I was often surprised when apparently agnostic colleagues would announce the baptism of their baby or send out invitations to their church wedding. On many occasions they would confess that it was to secure a school place or placate their religious families. It seems that religion is so closely woven into Irish life that it’s almost impossible to unpick the threads.

Even now in the 21st century the government is taking such tiny steps at separating Church and State that it feels like it will never happen.  It’s an ominous thought for me that Little P could yet become an adult in a country where schools, hospitals and even government are still so closely bound to the Church.

It does appear that the next generation are moving away from organised religion (in the 2016 Irish census 45% of those with no religion fell into the 20-39 age group). What will hold communities together in the absence of the religious ‘glue’? Atheists and Humanists like me will have to make a lot more effort to build secular communities. So, it’s time to stop complaining and start doing. As a natural introvert I’m not great at joining groups but for my sake and Little P’s sake I have to get over that.

I’ve recently discovered that there is an Atheist Ireland (www.atheistireland.ie) group in Kerry so my mission is to go along to their next meeting and connect with some other non believers. Humanist Ireland are also making great strides in growing regional groups and hosting secular events and celebrations (www.humanistireland.ie).

Communities built around human values like family, friendship, environmental care, nature and culture have the potential to be diverse, rich and inclusive. They have the potential to be even more enduring than religious ones because they are based around human values. Values that we will always have in common. They can become places where people of all religions and none can feel welcome and, most importantly, where no one will feel isolated. Atheists and Humanists have to be more active in creating these communities. We don’t have the benefit of generations of religious worship behind us. But the extra effort could make secular communities all the more worthwhile.

So, if you feel the same, and you recognise someone like me in your community make a connection. The more connections we make the more we can strive to build these secular  communities and create more genuine diversity. For as Jeanette Winterson once wrote ‘Oranges are not the only fruit’.

Mindfulness for Mermaids

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One of the best things about moving to the West for me is the Atlantic Ocean. I started swimming in the sea before I could walk. I have great memories of swimming lessons with my Dad on the beach. Once I could swim I would stay in the water for ages, long after all my friends had turned blue with the cold. I often wished I could become a mermaid so I wouldn’t ever have to get out of the sea!
I can’t imagine ever living away from the coast. There are some stunning beaches on the east coast of Ireland and I’ve probably been swimming on most of them but there’s something very special about swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. The water feels effervescent, full of life and energy and incredibly refreshing. Every day, no matter what the weather, I try to make time for a swim. The initial shock of the cold never really goes away and it’s like a jump start for the heart. Then, once I  fully immerse, my body temperature stabilises and I feel like I’m back in my natural habitat.
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Swimming is probably the best mindfulness therapy you could ever experience. During a swim you can really only think about staying afloat and getting to and from your watery destination. I swam all during my pregnancy up to the day Little P was born. I’m sure it was very good for my physical fitness but even more valuable to me were the psychological benefits. As a life long worrier pregnancy was a bit of a nightmare for me. I worried for nine months about everything, I even spent time worrying about the things I should be worrying about but didn’t actually know about yet. The only time I didn’t worry was when I was in the water. It was a lifeline just to shut down the anxiety and forget completely about pregnancy and the impending time bomb that was labour. My body went weightless so I even forgot about my bump for a short while.
 My first swim about 6 weeks after Little P was born was wonderful. I felt like me again and I’ve continued regularly since. It’s a thing I do just for myself and I think it’s important for everyone to have something like that in their life.
 Now I’m no Rachel Lee (fastest Irish swimmer of the English Channel and on my hero list) but I can swim and I can endure the cold. I need to work a lot harder on my technique and my fitness. There are some amazing men and women I watch during my daily swim that cover huge distances. I’m full of admiration for them.  So, feeling inspired, one of my new goals is to work on my stroke and my breathing and by next summer I can join them at least as far as the second swimming buoy!
I was also really hoping that Little P would like the water so I’ve been taking her to the beach since she was tiny. Now my difficulty is getting her out of it! She’s like a little mermaid herself and I’m looking forward to teaching her to swim just like my Dad taught me all those years ago.
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