In Touch With Scientist and Mother Fiona MacDonald - Par Femme

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by BARE Sexology

Pluck a clever, peripherally observant, and beautiful woman from the world. Literally any part of the world—far or near, rich or rare, physical or internet. A skyward follower count is not a determinant for selection. Ask her a set of questions that invite a discussion of sexuality, sensuality, modern feminism, career, and creativity, explored through her very personal lens. Have her answer them. And there you have it: that’s In Touch, a Par Femme segment, assembled, for you, with pleasure.

Fiona MacDonald is a mother, scientist, journalist,CEO, wife, daughter, sister and more—although, not in any particular order. Sitting down with her friend and Par Femme’s resident sex educator,Tammi Ireland, Fiona shares what it means to balance Instagram with reality, creativity with science, and motherhood with sex (among other things)... 

I know you as this incredibly fun-loving, sexy female in my life. Travelling, soaking it all up, making the most of every day, personally and professionally, and just seemingly biting into life like a juicy peach. Do you think this an accurate representation of Fiona MacDonald?
I’d like to think so! At least, it’s the kind of life I’m trying to achieve, but in reality, I don’t always get there. It’s hard for me when it comes to public portrayal as I’m very conscious of not projecting this perfect image of my life being always easy and adventurous and exciting. It’s definitely hard at times. I’m also a firm believer in the ability to actively choose and create your own life story. Like, if you have a slightly disastrous holiday or date and focus on all the bad things and retell that story over and over again, it becomes cemented in your life history as a terrible experience. Whereas, if you reflect on it often as that hilarious trip where everything went wrong and you laugh about it, it becomes a fun and light anecdote—something that enriches your life.

Neuroscience shows that this is true as well. The thought patterns we spend the most time on are the ones [we keep], while less-used pathways in the brain are cleared away for new learning. I do try to find fun and adventure and actively enjoy life—even the crappy parts. About 20% of the time, I’m sitting around stressing, worrying about the future, and not seizing the proverbial moment, but I try not to focus on that too much. I sit with the feeling and then let it go. Feeling guilty about it just makes it worse! I think my best trait is that I innately feel the weight of mortality. I think about death a lot. Not in a morbid way, but in the sense that I know it’s coming and I often make decisions based on asking myself, “When I’m on my deathbed, which of these stories would I like to tell?” I’m really bad at settling and tolerating situations I don’t like, which has actually served me well in life, because I don’t like getting comfortable and simply “accepting things as they are.” I want to live the life I want to live, and I make no excuses.

Tell me about the science of sex...
Science is all about questioning the world around us and trying to understand what’s going on and how we can improve it. When it comes to sex, there’s long been this myth that the female body is just too confusing and “weird,” and I think a lot of men (and women) use that as an excuse for not satisfying their partner. Guys have a quickie with their partners and it’s okay that she doesn’t come because it’s just “harder for women.” Science in this space has definitely been slow, but in recent years scientists have finally begun to figure out more about female biology and things such as squirting and the different types of orgasms. It turns out the female body is not actually all that mysterious. All women are slightly different in their biology, but we all have the capacity for great pleasure. MRI scans show that female and male orgasms are actually incredibly similar, from a neurological point of view at least. The main difference is that women can be sexually stimulated straight away again after orgasm, which means they have even more potential for sexual pleasure! So there really is no excuse.

Another thing I love about the science of sex is that we’re now showing the power of the female brain when it comes to being turned on—MRI scans show women can actually achieve orgasm-like states simply through the power of their mind. I hope more people begin to realise that if they want a great sex life with a female partner, it’s important for the woman to feel safe and relaxed and to stimulate her mentally as well as physically.

Of course, there are a lot of scientific and psychological reasons women aren’t able to achieve orgasm—I don’t want to make it sound like it’s so cut and dry, and that there should be any shame about not enjoying sex. But I hope as the research in this field advances, women and men feel more empowered to look for solutions and talk about issues and find ways for everyone to enjoy sexual encounters equally.

You’ve been a mother to beautiful girl, Teddy, for over one year now. How have you changed as a woman in the past 12 months?
I’ve changed in so many ways, but I’ve also stayed the same—more so than I thought I would. I think what was most shocking to me after having Teddy was that I didn’t actually feelthatdifferent. I’d heard people say to me all the time, “You won’t even recognise yourself after you have a child. Your world totally changes.” Of course, things have changed, but I definitely recognise myself! I still want the same things and enjoy the same things. One of the biggest changes is that now everything is just magnified and I have a little less patience to spend time and energy on things or people I don’t enjoy. As a woman, I also feel more confident, and a lot braver. I had a pretty unique experience in that I was promoted to CEO of ScienceAlert shortly before becoming a mother, so I had three months off and then dove right back into work part-time, but with a lot of responsibility. I kept saying to myself,If I can go through labour, I can do this.

I used to have such high expectations of myself… Now I’m happy if we make it out of the house. I love my body a lot more, too. It’s not even like,Wow my body is incredible, I’m so proud of myself. I simply seem to find myself more attractive now. Perhaps my biggest change after having a baby is realising how much of adulthood is an exercise in repressing our natural instincts and ignoring our bodies. Babies eat when they’re hungry and sleep when they’re tired (or cry if they can’t). They get grumpy when they’re not feeling well, and they take naps. As adults, we spend so much time and effort trying to fight with our bodies to ignore hunger, stay awake longer, plaster on fake smiles. It’s crazy to me that we’re born instinctively knowing how to feed and sleep and keep ourselves more or less alive (with some help, of course). We are perfect and whole and our bodies have all the wisdom we need to get through life, as long as we listen to them.

What will you teach your daughter about being a woman?
This is something I think about a lot, because I’m such a passionate feminist. I had some challenging experiences with sexuality growing up. When I was 10, my little brother was born, which was wonderful, but it also meant that my mum, who has always guided me so well in life, was quite distracted during my early teen years. We didn’t have many conversations about consent and sexual pleasure and the expectations of men (which I think is quite common!). I’m also a natural people-pleaser, which meant that I honestly didn’t realise until I was much older that, a) you could say no to people, and b) that sexual encounters were supposed to be enjoyable for me, as well as the guy. Most of my high school experience involved me doing things I wasn’t quite comfortable with, with people I didn’t necessarily like, and me feeling like somehow I owed it to them. Anyway, all of that also led to me being labeled the school slut, being bullied and shamed, having awful rumours spread about me, and generally developing a very unhealthy association with my body and sex that has taken me decades to break out of (any day now!). 

It’s super important to me that Teddy knows from birth that she doesn’t owe anyone anything, that she has full ownership over her body, and that she alone can decide what feels right or wrong. That whenever she does choose to experiment with her body and sexuality, there is no shame in it, and she can stop or start whenever she likes and change her mind on a whim. That if someone does push her boundaries and make her feel uncomfortable, or even worse, sexually assaults her, that it’s in no way her fault and that those experiences don’t define her. As she grows up, I will talk to her about sex and masturbation and let her know that all sexual encounters should feel good, not like an obligation. I will let her know that being a woman is the most fantastic adventure and we are much stronger than we will ever realise. I want to teach her to have the confidence and courage to live as she wants and to openly and warmly accept the way other people want to live. To be kind to everyone, but to herself most of all. I’m trying to start this at a young age by building up her trust and authority in her own body.

At the end of the day, we go through this crazy and wonderful journey of life with ourselves, and I hope that she will learn as I have to embrace herself and be her own best friend. That way you’re never alone, and you can find comfort and joy in even the darkest of times.

I’d imagine you’re quite busy day-to-day as the CEO of ScienceAlert, mother to Teddy, and wife to Dean. How do you make time to be each version of yourself?
I’m not sure I always do! Things definitely slip by the wayside at times. Some weeks I’m a great CEO and mum but I’m grumpier with Dean than I would like to be. Other times Dean and Teddy and I are the happiest family in the world, but I drop the ball at work. I think I probably make it work and keep up all my different hats simply by accepting that I can’t always be perfect. I also know that my relationships with my husband and my friends are really important to my happiness and success as mother and a boss. I try to take five minutes a day to reply to texts and emails from friends and cuddle and kiss with Dean (if nothing else!) so I never get too far from those relationships.

Probably most important is the time I spend each week on myself and my hobbies. This is a lot less than it used to be, but I still find a few hours a week to go to yoga, go for a walk in nature, practice French, or my favourite thing: read a book! I realised a while ago that trying to live a perfectly balanced life where I spend enough time each week on meditation, work, relationships, and health just doesn’t work. Some weeks it’s all one thing or the other and just accepting that and pushing through is often the best way for me.

Is your mind constantly in the ‘science’ of it all at work? How do you separate the clinical science of anatomy with the emotion of intimacy when you’re with your husband? Do you feel you need to?
Actually, I don’t think I have a traditionally ‘science’ brain. I absolutely love science and am fascinated by the world around me and insatiably curious, but at the same time, I’m very intuitive and emotionally-driven. What I love the most about science, especially at the moment, is how it’s showing the biological mechanisms through which our ‘gut feelings’ and mental state affect the rest of our bodies. I feel like science validates a lot of my emotional side and the experiences I’ve had with intimacy.

I was in a long-term, toxic relationship before I met Dean, and throughout it I struggled with so many health issues, especially related to food and digestion. I went to countless doctors and tried so many treatments. But as soon as we broke up and I became happy again, the issues resolved themselves. Ten years ago people would say it was all psychosomatic and in my head (and many doctors did!), but now we know that gut bacteria and the brain are so closely linked, and things like stress can wreak havoc on the microbiome of your gut, which in turn affects so many other aspects of your health. At ScienceAlert, we’re particularly passionate about women’s health and the science of female biology, which for decades has been ignored, and women have been made to feel as though serious issues such as PCOS and endometriosis are “all in their heads.” Finally, doctors and researchers are focusing on these issues, and it’s abundantly clear that they’re very real and serious conditions. In fact, a professor of reproductive health at University College London, John Guillebaud, admitted in 2016 that period pain can be as bad as a heart attack but that the field had been overlooked because “men don’t get it.” And, it’s only in the past few years that science has started to understand the power of the female orgasm and the role of the clitoris. These are all topics we’re covering on the site regularly.

That’s a long way of saying that, no, for me I don’t feel the need to separate my science brain and emotional intimacy because it’s all linked—and it should be! 

How do you make time for intimacy – either with your partner or by yourself?
It’s challenging, that’s for sure! It’s all about the quickies at the moment, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Dean and I (or just me when it comes to masturbation) often find 15 minutes first thing before Teddy’s awake, or while she’s down in her room for a nap.

It’s not always sex either—cuddling, kissing, taking time to read some erotica alone or together. Anything to remind us that we’re sexual beings and we’re desired by the other person is so important to our bond.

Has your sex life changed following a) marriage and, b) giving birth to Teddy?
It's a lot less frequent now! Marriage was great for our sex life as it made me feel a lot more safer to experiment and ask for things in the bedroom. I never actually cared that much about getting married or thought it would make a big difference to me, but I was surprised at how much more secure I felt. 

Having a baby has changed things more significantly. I’m still breastfeeding which, hormonally, increases vaginal dryness, and means sex can be quite painful for me. It’s getting better all the time but we had a few challenging months where we had to be more careful physically—even when it comes to things like engorged breasts and C-section scars, there were so many things going on with my body that we focused on other types of intimacy for a few months.

I actually have found sex more pleasurable post baby when it’s all working properly—I think because my pelvic floor is a lot stronger these days after months of physio pre-and post-delivery. I’m also a whole lot less shy and feel more comfortable and in touch with my body.

What really turns you on?
The ocean! Fresh sheets, a morning in bed with no plans, erotic fiction, dirty talk, flowers, nature, and, strangely enough, being hungover.

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