Friday, December 15, 2006

Christmas magic

“I wish I had magic powers,” said Aggie just before Christmas. I was sad, because she has always assured me she does have magic powers. But she is nine, and growing out of childhood.

Hoping to catch the child in her before it disappeared, I said: “But you do have magic powers. You can play the violin at Grade 1, you can jump up and down on a trampoline.”

“They aren’t proper magic powers,” she said.

OK, I said; think of this: if a shrimp, whose ancestors had colonised a dark underground lake millions of years ago, heard of your amazing ability to detect things by use of reflected light, he would say (if shrimps could articulate such ideas) that this was an astounding, nay, miraculous power.

“But seeing’s not magic,” she protested. “Everyone can do it.”

“Not a sightless cave-dwelling shrimp,” I insisted. The subject moved on – to animals with bad eyesight.

What I wish I had said was this: “Well, probably one day you will be able to have a baby, and if you described that to someone who didn’t know anything about it, they would say that it was a magic power.”

Think of how we imagine magic to be: as Aggie has begun to do, we think of it as something beyond the ordinary. We ignore the familiar, just because it is familiar. So we lose sight of the thing we are looking for: we cannot see the wood for the trees, nor the baby for the bathwater.

Here’s the thing about God’s love. It is not external to our daily experience. It is our experience.

Children are the only people who can bear the unbearable sweetness of the story of the star and the baby. Children, who can believe a dozen impossible things before breakfast, are almost the only people who understand that for a king to be born in a stable makes perfect sense.

Children effortlessly absorb the beauty of the birth, which seamlessly blends the spiritual and the animal: surrounded by the warm bodies of oxen and asses, Mary felt safe and secure enough to deliver her baby - a straightforward labour, for, young as she was, untroubled by the dismal stories with which women beset each other round, she simply, humbly saw birthing as a bit of hard work that needed doing.

At last, she sank back on the straw, utterly happy; tired, but inwardly drenched in oxytocin – the hormone which promotes childbearing, breastfeeding and – most magical of all - the complete adoration of a newly delivered mother for her baby.

Was this not magic? The magic of love, God’s love, working its unexpected, unplanned wonders?

We - the adults - are pantomime dames in our finery and rouge, who always turn around too slowly to spot the mysterious figure darting away when the children shout “it’s behind you”. Clumsily, we fret about being somewhere on time, or having enough money, or whether things will go according to plan: and the moment for love and magic slips away.

Christmas is when we have a chance to look more carefully for the love and magic; a chance to be humbled by their unbearable beauty, and to realise they were there all the time, but we were too busy ordering turkeys to see them.

I always cry when I see children on stage. Six pm - school nativity play starts; 6.15pm - Mrs Johnson starts blubbing, is the usual routine.

Incidentally, Aggie’s primary school has, in the past, treated us sobbing parents to “The Grumpy Sheep”, “The Hopeless Camel”, “The Hoity Toity Angel” and “The Lost Wise Man”. This year we had an Elvis-impersonating Herod in white lame. He was booted off the stage by the entire cast singing “There’s only one King, and his name is Jesus, Oh Yeah”, and we discovered that if you laugh while you are crying, you really do need an extra Kleenex Pocket Pack.

You want to know when the White Witch of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia will come to power on this planet, for real? When it really will be “always winter, and never Christmas”?

It will be when humans finally give up their magic powers to her. It will be when they willingly and compliantly hand over their ill-disciplined tendency to have children at inconvenient times and in awkward situations to the tidy, forward-planned, government-regulated fertility business as ordained by scientists and government quangos.

People will do this because, like Aladdin’s foolish wife, they do not recognise the magic object in their own hands, but give it away to a cunning pedlar.

And it will make such good sense. The White Witch does not take over suddenly, in a coup d’etat. She creeps across the land, spreading frost and snow with her nice, common-sensical suggestions, until one day we will look up and realise she is at the castle gates, and turning all to stone.

At first the White Witch said, “It is not reasonable to ask a woman to carry a child against her will.” That sounded sensible enough. Then she said, “It is not reasonable to ask a woman to carry a child she may not be able to look after.” We bought that, too.

Then she said: “It is not reasonable to carry a child who has Down’s Syndrome.” Now she says: “It is not reasonable to carry a child who might develop a disease…who is the wrong sex for the balance of the family, for surely a balanced family must be a happier family?”

And eventually, she will hold sway among the rich and powerful, and only very poor children will be born in their own time, sent by God and nature. We won’t know it, until suddenly we will realise that Christmas comes no more.

Oh, the shops will still put up November tinsel, the magazines will still offer shopping advice: “Ideal gift for your best friend: a Prada handbag, £900” assuming that the spending habits of an overpaid fashion editor with a hedge fund executive boyfriend are a useful model for the rest of us.

The TV diet of violent films and public humiliation will continue to be watched by the sad and the lonely – an ever increasing number of them – unvisited, unremembered (for there will be no one to remember them) in old people’s homes.

And there will still be children: solitary little things tucked away out of view, protected from the cold by virtual entertainments, elbowed from the TV schedules, and so showered with gifts all year round that the arrival of Christmas morning hardly makes a blip on their radar.

It will look like Christmas and sound a bit like Christmas, so we will call it Christmas. But it will not be Christmas, because we – aiding and abetting the White Witch by our own greed and stupidity – will have forgotten that the unexpected and glorious arrival of a child in the most inauspicious circumstances is the heart of Christmas.

So while the White Witch is still not quite at the gate, my prayer this year to stop worrying about what cannot be planned or provided for; and to open my eyes to the love and magic; the love and magic which are there to be found within that imperfect but blessed institution (for what family can be “perfect”? What child, what parent?) of the family Christmas.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006


When I gave up work to have babies, I often, then as now, had to fill in forms. Very often the form demanded to know my “employment status”. In order to exist in the eyes of the official world, I had to choose between employed, self-employed, unemployed or retired.

Since I did not feel in the slightest bit “unemployed”, usually I would heave a sigh and tick “self-employed”, forcing my occasional pin money from journalism to stretch my status up to the same giddy heights as Madonna and Bill Gates.

Most people do not realise this, but a parent who stops earning in order to bring their own children up has no official status at all – she simply disappears off the public radar. She gets child benefit – but she has no clear status at all.

This loss of a place in the world has never been properly measured. And the at-home-parent slips not only off the official radar, but the social one too. It may be that slight hint of contempt from garage mechanics or estate agents…suddenly you are “just the wife”. It may be the questioning looks later on when you try to find a job: “So what exactly have you been doing all this time?” Or it may simply be the snooty disregard of career women looking past your shoulder at parties.

The near-mythical existence of a tiny number of greatly envied “yummy mummies” - women lucky enough to be married to rich men, sensible enough to know that their children will only be small once, and also young and pretty enough to make the most of the experience – has simply whipped up resentment which is sometimes also directed at much less well-off parents who are stretching one income to do the job of two, simply so that one of them can be at the school gate at 3.30pm every day.

The Conservative Party is right (gosh, that was tough to type): family breakdown IS behind most of our social problems. But their policy review on the issue, chaired by Iain Duncan-Smith (who tried to get the Tories interested in social justice while he was their leader, and got kicked out for his pains), only begins to delve into the reasons for family breakdown.

My theory is this: the job of keeping families together has been downgraded and at the same time parents have lost sight of long-term goals.

The one thing which would change the family breakdown rate instantly would be to allow a stay-at-home parent – mum or dad – to transfer their personal tax allowance to their spouse – not to a cohabitee, but to a spouse.

This would transform the status of both marriage and the job of parenting at one blow. It would acknowledge the contribution to society of parents who raise their own children AND acknowledge that marriage is a totally different kettle of fish from the drifting, twilight existence of cohabitation.

It would take a very brave political leader to introduce transferable tax allowances – there would be howls of protest. But a far-sighted political leader would just do it.
It would not cost the Exchequer a huge amount, because only families for whom it made a significant difference would take the option up.

It would benefit poorer families more dramatically than the rich, taking many right out of paying tax at a stroke.

And the dividends reaped in the long run – better literacy, happier families, fewer ASBOs – would be noticeable within twenty years – less than the lifespan of a nuclear power station. Best of all, it would – for once – allow mothers to feel that the system values them in whatever they do.


We still haven’t sent any Christmas cards, so Mr J. went to buy some yesterday. It was one of those shops which sells ONLY greetings cards, with the occasional miniature teddy bear thrown in. To reduce misunderstanding even further, it was called, I think, “Cards Galore”. Ever the optimist, Mr J imagined this would be just the place.
“Do you have any religious Christmas cards?” he began hopefully.
A worried look.
“You know,” he explained. “Christmas cards with a CHRISTIAN theme?”
A blank look.
“OK,” persisted my nearest and dearest, calling on all his academic skills, “How can I put this…cards for Christmas which have a baby on them. And a mummy.”
The shop assistant’s face brightened slightly, and she pointed silently to the display: “Best wishes for the birth of your new baby”.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

What seems to be the matter

Catholic Herald 8 December 2006

I have an irrational prejudice against doctors. The trouble is, I spend a lot of time with women in labour and childbirth, and the doctor is the very last person we want to see in a birth room.

Many doctors are perfectly respectful and considerate towards the labouring woman in their care, but you still get the odd throwback who marches in unannounced with bad news and an even worse attitude, an invasive presence threatening invasive procedures.

You can rely on this type of doctor for confidence-shattering, bossy remarks like “We will give you one hour to have this baby then we will proceed to an instrumental delivery”.

If you have a phobia of a particular profession, then finding yourself in a room full of them is supposed to cure you, so it was a good thing that I spent last Saturday afternoon at an outstanding and inspiring conference of Catholic doctors organised by the Westminster Diocese and hosted by Opus Dei in an elegantly modernist conference hall in Hampstead.

My job was sorting out written questions from the audience to a distinguished panel of experts in medical ethics led by the Cardinal himself, and including Dr Philip Howard, of St George’s Hospital, who started the day with a brilliant and illuminating commentary on Evangelium Vitae.

I was privately amazed by how many medical students and keen sixth formers had given up a precious Saturday in front of the telly to think about medical ethics, so the written questions which rained down on my desk over lunch were a wonderfully mixed bunch. There were abstruse philosophical questions from the senior medics mixed up with blatant attempts from sixth formers to get the panel to do the questioner’s weekend homework for free – and once we had weeded out the thinly disguised essay titles, the questions written in a more youthful hand turned out to be an intriguing selection.

For example: “Have you ever experienced prejudice in your medical career because you are a Catholic?”

Two of our panel members, Dr Charles O’Donnell and Dr Anne Carus, the NaPro Fertility expert, said that no, they had not experienced any overt prejudice. But I would not really expect them to: Dr O’Donnell is a totally upfront Catholic doctor who works extensively with student and junior doctors on medical ethics. And Dr Carus, being a natural fertility expert, is also in area of work in which, by its very nature, she is not likely to encounter prejudice, because the more prejudiced people in society are not likely to cross her path.

Both travel, as it were, with warning lights on and probably most anti-Catholic or anti-Christian elements simply move out of their way as they approach.

But our keynote speaker, Dr Philip Howard, told a chilling story about how an Oxford college turned him down after he gave a pro-life answer to an interview question.

Logic dictates that if there were one career in which you should expect to find Christians aplenty, then surely the medical profession must be it. Learning to heal the sick and tend to the dying has to be the simplest, most obvious way of answering Christ’s call.

So is extraordinary that the concept of prejudice against any Christian within the caring professions should be a worry for Catholic medical students. Yet it is clearly what most worries them. Another student asked, “Have you ever been tempted to do something which went against your faith and ethics but which you knew would further your career?”

The assumption was that being a Christian, in particular a Catholic, is in some way going against the grain of medical life. Either you are going to encounter prejudice at the best, or find your faith at odds with what your superiors expect you to do. And that is a terrible indictment of the way in which we regard doctors.

I realised that my own particular totally irrational bias against obstetricians is probably an offshoot of this: we no longer think of doctors as experts who trust and respect the human body, rather as interfering busybodies who want to “play God”. It seems we need more doctors who are Catholics, and more Catholic doctors such as Dr Howard, with the confidence to speak up for their convictions.

As for Dr Howard’s story: well, he was accepted by another college – and he discovered years later that his rejection “on grounds of his faith” had become common knowledge – not to his shame, but, it turned out, to the eternal shame of the college which rejected him.