The podgy hand on my thigh

The allegations against former Lib Dem chief exec Lord Rennard have brought back some unpleasant, unwanted memories of a time when I was a vulnerable young woman hovering excitedly, uncertainly on the first rung of the career ladder.

He was an ugly old man (they usually are, aren’t they?), in his late 50s, with a huge pot belly, red, flaky skin and tiny snake-like eyes. He had an even uglier wife, (they usually do, don’t they?) enormous with a moon face and rotten smoker’s teeth.

I respected him a lot for his knowledge and was eternally grateful to him for giving me my first break in journalism. I wanted so much to please him.

It was after an office party one night.  He insisted on driving me to a pub where we would all meet up for a nightcap.

My subconscious flashed red alert signals, but I ignored them. He was my boss and my ticket to the only career that ever interested me.

Five minutes into the ride, a fat little hand with podgy sausage fingers and nearly transparent skin landed on my thigh. I froze.

He just kept talking as if nothing had happened. I moved away, his hand moved higher.

I did nothing…

By the time we got the pub, he was all over me – in front of all the staff members and his wife. Nobody said anything. He was literally pawing me like a big bear, laughing merrily all the time, while I sat motionless, tears stinging behind my eyes and bile rising in my throat.

The next day I went into the office, shaking uncontrollably. He pretended nothing had happened. I sat staring at my blank computer screen, unable to type a single word.  Every time I looked at him, I flushed, remembering his sickening sweet smell and sweaty hands on my legs. I knew I would never respect him again and I was devastated.

After a few days, I told my dad, an accomplished businessman, who instructed me to confront him.  It was the scariest thing I ever did.

I told him that if he’d ever touch me again, I would go straight to the police.

He exploded with rage, his face turning blood red and he shouted at the top of his voice so that everyone in the office could hear: “You think you’re God’s gift to men. I’ve never touched you and I would never want to touch you.”

It was terrifying, but even as he said it, I could feel the emotional distress of the days since the incident dissolving, the shift of power. I was in control. This would never happen again.

From that day on his behaviour towards me changed, as did his wife’s. They became businesslike, hostile, but very careful around me. He never touched me again.

Of course, I knew this would be the end of our working relationship, but there was no way I could have stayed there any way.

Eventually, after a few weeks, I found another job and left with a glowing reference. I bumped into him a few times after that – and every time he treated me professionally, with respect.

As pointed out by many women in the past few days, these type of incidents, which are sadly very common and typical of a certain generation of older men, are not about sex but about power.

The only way to deal with them is confrontation.

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Advice I’d give my younger self

Paulababy

As an older mum who thought it wise to have not one, two… but three children – the youngest at an age when really I should have been thinking about getting a poodle, knitting jumpers or having an affair in stead,  I’ve learned a few lessons along the way.

If I could write a letter to my younger self about to have her first baby at the age of 32, I would force her to sit down with a cup of tea or even a glass of chardonnay and take some notes from someone who’s made an awful lot of mistakes along the way.

The first piece of advice would be to never, NEVER let your husband (or any other man for that matter) decide whether you need gas or air or other forms of pain relief while giving birth. My husband declined the nurse’s offer for gas and air on my behalf when I was about to have our first child, but backed off after I threatened loudly to disfigure him for life.

Although I did get my gas and air in the end, I was not quite strong enough to say NO when my husband suggested cheerfully that we move with a 10-day old baby to a country where I didn’t speak the language to further his career.

Naturally, he sugar-coated it with promises of romantic evenings under the Eiffel Tower and made me feel that this was in the “interest of the family”. My inner voice was going ballistic at the time, but I looked lovingly into my hubby’s eyes, trusted him blindly and flashed two fingers at my inner voice behind his back.

What followed was two very testing years as an expat mum in Paris trying to make ends meet in a one-roomed apartment on my husband’s non-expat salary, struggling to make myself understood at doctor’s appointments, in supermarkets and unsuccessfully attempting to strike up conversations with nannies looking after designer-clad French babies around Parisian sand pits. I tried desperately to come to terms with my overnight loss of independence and figure out where I fitted into this new order of things and at the same time do justice to the little baby I had not the foggiest idea what to do with.

At this point, I would stress quite strongly to my younger self-perhaps even stamping my fist on the kitchen table for effect:  NEVER, and I mean NEVER assume that your husband (or ANY man for that matter) knows what’s best for you or has your best interests at heart. ALWAYS listen to what your own inner voice is telling you. It is trying to tell you something for a reason. Ignore it at your peril. It is the only voice you should ever fully trust – whatever the consequences.

And if my younger self was prepared to hear me out a little longer, I would tell her to take another swig of chardonnay and listen carefully: Don’t EVER listen to anyone who even suggests that you’re selfish just because you refuse to become obsessed with your children’s bowel movements, school marks, sports achievements, friends or lack of friends.

Don’t become a mummy martyr who sacrifices her own hopes, dreams and ambitions on the altar of motherhood. You’ll only regret it and no-one will thank you for it. That doesn’t necessarily mean rushing out to work or completely abandoning your kids, but do make time for yourself and your own dreams, whatever it takes. Get someone to clean the house, pay a babysitter so you can do the line-dancing class you always wanted to do.  Do the course or see a career councillor to get your career back on track – you’re worth it. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Your children will be fine and might even thank you for not hovering around them like a helicopter mum. Allow them to breathe, make their own mistakes – while you get your nails done, read a novel or paint a landscape.

We can certainly learn a lot from men in this regard – no matter how hands-on they are as dads, they seldom allow their own lives to go to pot as a result of parenting. Somehow, they always manage to fit in the late night ‘networking’ meeting, justify a night out with the blokes, play a round of golf or my personal favourite – suffer the ‘terrible’ business trip to an exotic destination staying in a five-star hotel, while you stay at home looking after the kids.

Don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself, confront when you need to confront, don’t take NO for an answer, believe in yourself and certainly don’t let anyone else (male or female)  decide for you what you should and should not want from life.

Through the eyes of a 3-year-old

We were on our way somewhere – the destination irrelevant –  the same frantic rush that precedes every family outing, irrespective of whether it is a carefully planned holiday or an impromptu dash to the park.

The scene is reminiscent of passengers about to board a train at a busy station, scuttling in all directions, searching frantically for missing shoes and lost gloves, dashing for final wees and collecting stray coffee mugs and juice cups for the dishwasher on the way out.

In the midst of this chaos, my husband sees his sole responsibility as rising from his chair, locating his unmissable size-11 shoes which are usually to be found in middle of the entrance hall where he left them, and then shouting at the rest of us to get a move on.

After three children and 10 years of marriage it doesn’t ever occur to him to pack a nutritious bag of snacks, wipe a bottom or two or help a screaming toddler into his coat to speed the process along.

This time my three-year-old, Max, by some miracle managed to find his shoes and coat quite quickly and was standing proudly aside his dad frowning disapprovingly at the rest of us as we desperately fell about our feet to get out the door.

My husband unhelpfully said: “Why is this taking so long? What ARE you doing?”

This is never a good move and I made it clear in no uncertain terms that I would take exactly as long as I deemed necessary and that if he wanted us to get there on time nothing prevented him from getting his hands dirty and helping.

It was at this point that Max looked up innocently at his dad and asked very seriously: “Why is her always so stroppy, dad?”

For a few minutes I was speechless…  and then it dawned on me, he’s only three and has had limited conditioning of traditional male/female roles and a good dose of feminism from my side, but he’s already cottoned on that a man’s role is to look after himself only and any woman who questions this is being demanding, difficult… and stroppy!

It’s been the story of my life and I’m facing an uphill battle!IMG_1574