Sunday, 24 May 2020

Care for the carers or they won't care for you

Anni Albers's loom
This, published in the New York Times, 8 May 2020. Where have you been all my life, Kim Brooks? I love you.


Yes. Lysistrata. Cinderella. Wages for Housework, Italy, 1972. Studs Terkel.

Work done in the home is work. Cooking, cleaning, making, mending. Labour.

Labour should be remunerated. Fairly.

It takes skill to clean and care. It can be itemised, shown as a workload document. This work is not invisible. It exists and can be quantified. It is invisibilised, feminised, certainly. But it is not women's work for all that.

I needed a doctorate to raise children. I needed a doctorate to ward off the shit that is flung at women once they become mothers (or indeed if they don't become mothers). Shit is just flung at women, and they are expected to suck it up, clean it off, say nothing, be pretty, and be flung on the heap when they're done. Fuck that.

Pay carers, or you'll end up paying the price. Pay carers or they won't care for you. The goodness of the heart still needs feeding, and food costs money.

The single task of any government is to care for the carers, the workers, those who labour. Everybody labours. Everything starts and ends in care. That's it. There isn't another task facing government. The pandemic only strips that truth bare, strips away all the shit we try to cover it up with. The loudmouths braying for this that and the other. Care is silent, exacting, patient, demanding work. True work. Pay for it.


Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Women are writing less during Lockdown than men. Why would that be, then?

The stereotyped image of the 'working mother'
Female academics are writing less during Lockdown than men. Why would that be, then? To enlighten myself, I read an article today – here's the headline:

Women academics seem to be submitting fewer papers during coronavirus. ‘Never seen anything like it,’ says one editor. Men are submitting up to 50 percent more than they usually would

I wonder if readers of this blog will be able to guess my response? Yes? No? I'm unable to restrain myself anyway, so here goes…To sum up, and at the risk of sounding like the Daily Mash, this is more fabulous Motherload nonsense from the No Shit Sherlock School of Research, University of Life. Go on then, I know you know I want to. Let me spell out why. 

Particular restatements of the problem, as opposed to doing anything, anything at all, about the solution (um... men need to do more housework and let go of some of their entrenched power; women need to stop trying to do everything, less is definitely more) include:

1. 'Women — who *inevitably* shoulder a greater share of family responsibilities — seem to be submitting fewer papers'.

*signals fallacy. Nothing 'inevitable' about it.

2. 'If men and women are at home, men *“find a way”* to do more academic work.'

*signals "euphemism".

3. 'Some of the responsibilities are *determined by biology*: *If a woman *chooses* to *breast-feed*, that takes up hours every day. Women also *face a physical recovery from giving birth*.'

******** signals expletives. Just read Simone de Beauvoir.

4. 'Williams *splits child care with her husband, working from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., and watching her 4-year-old son through 6 p.m*., when they all come back together for the evening. All her work time goes to daily tasks: replying to emails, facilitating departmental logistics. She “has not touched” either of her two pending book projects.'

*signals fatuous non-solution. No writer can get anything done in a day split this way.

5. '“A day in the office is less exhausting than a day with a 7-year-old”'. The clue's in the sentence.

6. 'Other women had the same concern, but *wouldn’t speak on the record* because they feared it might jeopardize their chance'.

*signals Motherload, a mental condition in which women split themselves in two to try to have it all by doing it all, while lying about it, and selling out other women (controversial, yet salient).

7. 'Lev has started to *keep track of her days*, writing down how many hours she spent with her daughter, and how many hours she was able to work. If anyone ever says she wasn’t “productive” during coronavirus, *she’ll have the records to prove them wrong*.'

*signals paranoid opposition between 'work' and 'motherhood' as though motherhood did not involve work. This false opposition between 'work' and 'life' is also one of the (many) wedges driven into female identity which leads to internalising misogyny, and a lifetime of self-doubt and self-justification.

8. Real solution? Look at the ridiculous rate of publication – most of the articles submitted won't be worth the paper they were printed on. No one needs or can read this number of publications – the publications are about getting tenure, not original research.

Original research, developing a big idea *rather like raising a child to adulthood* takes YEARS AND YEARS of effort, getting it wrong, losing your way, coming up for air, a bit of serendipity, and finally a cristalline drop of insight. Not a plethora of wind bagging.

That's the problem – it's not the rate of productivity, it's the POINTLESSNESS of the productivity.

Woman, thinking.

P.S. As I write this, mon cher mari is making dinner at the end of his working day. Because he is a lovely man, and likes food, and his children. Later we will eat together. Bicker pointlessly, and collapse. It took a good few years, but I'm happy with my Motherload. 

Sunday, 19 April 2020

The Pandemic and the Female Academic or Motherload in a time of Covid

Two people recently sent me a piece called 'The Pandemic and the Female Academic', so I felt it incumbent upon me to clamber back onto my Motherload soapbox, lean from the top floor window of my coronavirus lockdown retreat, and scream into the indifferent winds.

Very yogic.

This is a paraphrased version of what my poor unwitting friends received in response:
Thank you! Mmmmm… thesis: "it's going to be even harder for women with children to get their work done if they are on lockdown at home."  
I don't want to appear rude, but isn't this of the No Shit Sherlock school of writing? This is normal Motherload, merely topped off with the whipped cream of pandemic. 
And BTW I have never heard the term 'maternal wall' before, in all the years I've spent banging my head against it, writing about the nonsense that is combining children and a career as a woman. Speak soon, love, Ingrid.
Although when I come to think of it, whenever I have (once again, and wearily, ever since 2003) raised the idea that having children might be the last great feminist problem, to be solved mainly by men having less and doing more, and that there is also a post-feminist issue with women bullying each other, exacerbated around reproduction, I have been met with stony faces. As if I have somehow said, 'I hate my children'. I don't. This isn't about children. It's about Western society still not being sure what a woman is for.


Tomorrow, Lockdown Bush School begins for our nearly fourteen-year-old son.

After some, ahem, discussion, father and mother will be ALTERNATING supervision days, because we both work. My work, after years of Motherload, now earns me next to nothing, but I still can't actually do it unless I have the time and space.

I'm not remotely 'curious what lockdown will reveal about the "maternal wall"' as the author of the article in Nature so artlessly puts it.

I know for sure what it will reveal – massive resentment and antagonism – and just how hard it is to shift the rubble of patriarchy from its current semi-collapsed state.

Not because my husband is somehow deficient – he's absolutely the opposite, as everyone who knows him will attest – he is our lockdown cook! He vacuums! No, because it is almost impossible to loosen the choking hold of Motherload, so deeply entwined is it with our socialisation.

Let me say it again, once more, without feeling: being a 'mother' is not the same as being a 'domestic servant', however normalised that ideology has become in the post-industrial era. 

Yes, I'm aware of the joy of care, the love of service, the deep heroism of humility. I've had my face pushed into this lie for seventeen years – have pushed my own face into it, because, hey, I love my children, and want to be with them – and I have never become less angry.

Unsung hero be damned. I want to sing.


The last words my mother ever spoke to me were, 'Do what you have to do, Ingrid.'

There are many ways to read those words. Do your duty. Do whatever you like.

But I know for certain what my mother meant. She meant, "Live the life I gave you through my own painful labour, and nurtured and cultivated in you, Ingrid, live it to its very fullest, love that life, see all the beauty and richness that you can possibly see in it, and push away the bullying and the undermining and the gaslighting. Serve your true purpose, and define that purpose for yourself."

How can I be so certain what my mother meant? Because she uttered those last incredible words as she watched me tear myself in two trying to be with her in Norfolk, and be with our son 100 miles away as he began secondary school. She told me to do what I had to do, because she was giving me permission to leave her and go to my son.

The next time I saw her, one night on, her brain tumour had completely paralysed her. She was no longer able to speak. I drove to London, saw my son start secondary school, and drove back. My mother died a week later.

That deep courage, her willingness to face the end of her own life alone, so that her daughter could be with her child, that pure encouragement, that is what I aspire to pay forward to my son and daughter. That, I pray, is my gift to them. My infinitely strong mother is still guiding me.

And that is why my husband, who is the main breadwinner of the family unit, nevertheless needs to do his share of homeschooling under lockdown. After all, one of the reasons he is the main breadwinner is because it wasn't made possible for me to be. But we are both full-time parents.

My thundering tirade to my poor friend ended: 'They have already got there in New Zealand, with Jacinta Ardern, and it is no coincidence that NZ was the first country in the world to give women the vote, 19 September 1893. That's how long it takes for the kind of leaders we want and long for women (and men) to be to emerge. Social progress takes about three generations.'

See you on the far side of the maternal wall.

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Eaten up by privilege

In the brilliant, provocative, honest Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich takes a deep dive into the world of low-paid work in America. The story she has to tell is in some ways predictable. She can't make ends meet on the kind of money the lowest-paid make. No shit, Sherlock.

What saves her account from turning those low-paid people into victims, and turns them instead into the victimised — people thrown under the wheels of a systemic problem: Capitalism — is that she never tries to hide the fact that she is privileged, well-educated and cushioned. Her honesty in admitting and claiming this (she makes no bones about the fact that she would never willingly choose to take a low-paid job) means that her work exists in a realistic framework. She is in no sense romanticising the 'poor who are always with us'. And she is not justifying herself. No one can accuse you of what you claim as your own. How I love that her name means 'rich in honour' in German. Mine means 'waxing moon'. Make of that what you will.

Reading Nickel and Dimed made me realise that I have long been tormented — all my life, in fact — by question marks over my own status, both financial and professional. Bringing up the question of money helps me to feel a stark relief. I'm not proud of my story, but I am no longer ashamed of it either. 

I was well supported as a child, because my father, much older than most of my friends' fathers, retired aged 55, in 1974, with an excellent pension from Royal Dutch Shell. I grew up in Norfolk, with neither of my parents needing to work any more, because Mum had put her savings from teaching into buying a house, and then traded up. We had no mortgage, and school fees were not prohibitive at that time. We must have been well-off by most people's standards, but both my parents were anxious about money, something that came from their wartime backgrounds, and my father's first marriage and divorce, which wiped him out. I can remember how he kept track of petty cash on notepads in the kitchen. I grew up thinking we were poor.

I can also remember that I stole money from my mother's purse, and hid it in my wardrobe. One day I discovered some of the money in a tiny plastic purse in the shape of a green kitten's head, with stuck-on fur, during lunch break at primary school. Horrified, I threw it in the bin. When they discovered what I was doing, my parents took me to a psychologist. He told them that I was angry with my father. They didn't go back. 

Being sent to — and loving — my private girls' school, in my safe, parochial home city, Norwich, set me up for lifelong guilt: I felt strongly, even as a child, that I owed my parents and British society something, because I had gone to a private school through my parents' means, and that means was a derivative of oil money. I knew I was not entitled to my privilege.

I won a Shell scholarship to Cambridge: I was eligible as my father's daughter. I was probably unique in the history of Shell because my half-brother, from my father's first family, also won a Shell scholarship, and it was unheard-of for siblings to be awarded them.

I didn't get into debt as an undergraduate at Cambridge, in part because of Shell, but also my parents taking out a covenant to cover my maintenance. Tuition fees were, of course, free in the late 1980s. 

When I got into drama school in 1992, the year after leaving Cambridge, I decided not to go, because I knew I did not have the determination to seek out the necessary funding, and I knew my parents disapproved.

I wanted to prove to them that I had fully 'left home' and was financially independent of them, even at the cost of doing what I most wanted to do: act. They had supported me for eighteen years, and I did not want to owe them anything more. I left home as soon as I could, in the summer of the year I turned eighteen, for paid work, at Cambridge University Press, on an amazing pre-university placement scheme called Index.

Whenever I got into trouble, some problem or other at work, or as I found my feet living away, my father used to say, "Give it up and come home".

I couldn't think of anything worse. His lack of belief in me drove me to find my own solutions, and I always did. It made no difference: he never recognized my achievements as achievements anyway. Instead I think he simply saw me as a 'worry', highly-strung, difficult, with my eating disorder as an undergraduate, and my bouts of depression.

I felt ashamed when my parents sought to help me financially after I left home. During my languages year abroad at a freezing Lycée Technique in the Vosges, they bought me a small secondhand car. I felt ashamed — but I also made the most of it. I used the car to travel all over Western Europe that year. I drove to Avignon through the mountains, to Grenoble in the snow, to Berlin along Hitler's motorways, picking up a scrap of the Berlin Wall a couple of months after it came down. I paid for the little car's running from my earnings as an Assistante in the lycée. I felt ashamed, but so grateful for it.

I left the assistante job, after a boy from the Technical Lycée deliberately attacked that car, putting a bottle through its back windscreen at a nightclub, simply because he knew it was mine. I resigned, packed my bags and drove to Paris to look for work. That little car helped me save myself. I learnt never to look gift horsepower in the mouth. Vroom-vroom.

After deciding not to go to drama school, I turned to my second-best career choice: writing. I could not, though, see how to fund it. And I felt an obligation from 'getting a First' to be worthy of that First. After all, I'd spent most of my undergraduate degree drunk and on stage, not always in that order. I wasn't quite sure how I'd pulled it off, and certainly didn't think I'd 'earnt' it. Fleabag, c'est moi.

I decided that I would do a doctorate if, and only if, I could win British Academy funding for it, and go straight from BA to a DPhil at Oxford, supervised by the best writer on Proust in the country, if not the world, without having to stop and do an MA. I wanted to sort out my career track, take control, and stop wasting time. I was a woman on a mission. It won't surprise you to hear that my chosen subject was… self-justification.

I also felt that setting parameters as hard as possible for myself was a justifiable bargain to make with my determination to be a writer, a professional choice I knew full well to be fraught with the risk of utter failure. I did not want to depend on anyone, and I wanted to demonstrate 'career progression', after all the time and effort of getting into Cambridge. 

At least I would have a qualification at the end of 'being an eternal student'. 

I desperately needed life to Add Up.

My parents gave me a very small supplement during my doctorate, because they could see I didn't have two pennies to rub together, which I was, naturally, ashamed of. I worked and earnt throughout the four years it took me to kill that doctorate, including a lovely job selling bedlinen in a frou-frou shop; a prestigious Lectrice post at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris (how French is that: 'normal' and yet 'superior' at the same time); and a teaching post at Wadham College.

Before the end of the doctorate, I won not one but two much-prized post-doctoral awards, one at St Anne’s College (poorly funded, ex-Ladies College…), the second a coveted British Academy post-doc, which attracted a lecturer’s salary. Which is when I moved to London.

I found dirty, aggressive, unequal London hideous, after my idyllic years cycling round verdant, elitist Cambridge and Oxford, and playing at being breathless in Paris. Within a year I admitted to myself that what I really longed to do was buy a flat, to have somewhere of my own to hide in. I was deeply ashamed when my mother lent me a sum of money for a down payment. The fact of the matter was that I could never have bought property without her. That privilege was naked. I became a woman of property, as well as a doctor, but only one of those titles was earnt through my labour.

I was unhappy in academic life in London, and when two lectureship jobs came up in Cambridge, I decided to apply. If I got one, I told myself I would give academic life one last shot. Almost because of my ambivalence, I did land one – and almost simultaneously met a beautiful, kind Australian with a deep voice, who made me laugh. I fell in love with him and felt utterly torn.

The first thing I did was earn £1000, seeking out a commission to write a book called Proust for Beginners. I happily tapped it out in six weeks. It gave me huge pleasure, because it had cartoons in it – I really wanted to combine cartoons and writing. 

The second thing I did was not return my contract to Cambridge for several months. I felt deeply ambivalent about taking up the post. I had been offered the less senior role of the two going, despite my research track record, with a verbal promise that I would be promoted quickly, but it became clear almost immediately that the post was a poverty trap. I was pegged at the very top of the pay scale, and couldn't progress.

And then the Head of Department changed. 

When I tentatively went to her, to ask if I could apply for promotion because of the salary issue, she immediately began to bully me.

At this point my father developed vascular dementia, and went mad. I applied for compassionate leave from my college to support my mother, while carrying on with my departmental duties. In response, the Head of Department told me I couldn't leave Cambridge, even at weekends, without her permission. 

And then… I got pregnant. While on maternity leave, I sold my London flat, and made a significant profit. My parents wouldn’t take their loan back. I felt guilty and ashamed – but I kept the money. It was my safety net.

After trying to return to work, I was quickly manoeuvred into a position where I had no alternative but to resign, caught between the bullying HoD, a mother herself, who wouldn't grant me flexible working, and my partner, struggling with redundancy and his mother’s breast cancer, and unable to cope with our baby on his own while I was keeping term in Cambridge.

It seemed to make sense, when looked at in money terms. He earnt more than I did, or could, although I was doing well, on a good salary, plus college perks, plus renting out my flat, before I sold it.

And so it came to pass that I signed away everything I had ever worked for, in order to marry, be a stay-at-home mother and a writer. 

The first thing we did was move to Sydney. While we lived in Australia, I earnt a nominal amount through writing book reviews: childcare was well subsidised by the state, and I could cover the cost of it simply through review work and a bit of teaching for Sydney Uni. I had three days a week childcare. It was bliss. I had time to write and think, and published several things in that time.

Then, in 2005, my father died, and I received some inheritance. Inheritance money is always strange, and I was only 37. 

I got pregnant again, had our son, and flew back alone to England when he was three months and our daughter was three. When my husband also returned to the UK, a few months later, he didn’t have a job. I found we were starting to dip into my inheritance to survive, and couldn’t bear to squander it on Sainsbury’s. That guilt was enough to drive me to stop writing. I was lucky enough to land work as a management consultant.

Again, I felt that I had to pay for all the childcare out of just my income — I don’t know why (although that's a leading question, since it's so obviously internalised misogyny) – and gave my whole salary to our nanny every month. The state dragged its heels approving her status, which deprived us of salary sacrifice help for months. It was hard to make ends meet.

I was working harder than I ever had before, with small children, for no income, not writing, trying desperately to get a mortgage and move out of our tiny flat. It was two years of hell. I liked the consulting work, but it was almost impossible to keep going. 

And, to my astonishment, I was being bullied a second time. There were no other mothers at the consultancy, not working at my level, anyway. This time it was by my line manager, who was my age and envious because I had children and she didn’t (she now does, and is much happier). She made my life miserable, henpecking and putting me and my work down. I did stand up to her one day, which gave her the shock of her life, and she stopped for a while, but it was never comfortable.

I lasted two years. After leaving, I earnt very little for a bit, then took a research job at an education information organisation (always a mouthful), thinking that, although I was over-qualified, it would leave me time to write. Wrong. Again, I funded a nanny wholly through my salary. My husband was not earning, because he was at home that year, trying to set up a business, a quidproquo for my years writing in Australia, but, like my novel, it sadly never came to anything.

I loathed the education information organisation, not just for its cumbersome mission, but for its pompous management, and quickly made myself persona non grata. I had gone from being Golden Girl, with the British Academy post-doc and the bright future at Cambridge, to Office Bitch, always up in arms about something. 

To cap it all I was being bullied a third time. This time it was by a twenty-five-year old female martinet, promoted over me, who had no experience of what's it's like being a working mother, so felt she had to crush me to get the most out of me. I was back in hell. (The martinet has since had children, and, last I heard, was being manoeuvred out of her job. I did not feel Schadenfreude, for the record, I felt blind fury – will this cycle of bullying mothers never be broken?)

The end of my education researcher career came when I reduced my martinet to tears one day, by patiently taking her through my contract, line by line, explaining in words of one syllable how it was physically impossible for me to do the job they wanted from me within its terms.

I could not sink lower. I was bullying my own bully.

Once my husband was back on his feet with a contract, I resigned, and told him I pointblank refused to go back into an office job, no matter what financial situation we were in. I said that I would set up as an education consultant and work from home. No more childcare costs met out of my salary, and freedom from the vagaries of his employment in the rock 'n' rollercoaster world of TV development.

I have never looked back, although at points things have, indeed, been financially difficult. The worst came when a contract my husband was counting on evaporated, exactly as our daughter started at a private school. We had to stop paying the mortgage, and borrow, not only from my mother, but also a friend. The shame was excruciating. We stopped seeing any friends and just withdrew. I worked hard, but couldn’t earn enough to make ends meet on my own. My partner was flipping burgers in a gastropub when he finally landed a great job at CNN, after nine interviews. He was my hero. I was wrecked.

That summer, I re-met an old university acquaintance, who invited me to be a writer in residence at her law firm. 

At exactly the same time, in early 2016, I found a lump in my breast. 

You can't make this shit up.

I will always love and admire Ayesha Vardag, as well as the NHS, because when I told her I would need cancer treatment, instead of forcing me to resign, as my Head of Department in Cambridge had done, she simply said "Do what you can, invoice us, and keep going".

Ayesha's faith in me meant that I worked and earnt all through my (free) surgery and radiation treatment. And was published in Vogue online. 

About the same time that writing residency came to an end, my mother started to go downhill. By early 2017 it was clear she was dying. I didn’t hesitate. I stopped most of my paid work and went to be with her in Norwich.

My husband held the fort. This time round, with older children, they could all manage without me. It wasn't nice, but it was feasible. Without an income, though, I struggled for food and petrol, and arranged with my brother that I would use our mother's money so that one of us could be with her while she was dying – his work meant he couldn't often make the Cardiff-Norwich journey. 

I can report that it is a not a good feeling, aged 49, to access your mother's bank account, and take money out of it. But I didn’t want to get involved with applying for carers’ allowance, it was too protracted and painful – and in any case, our mother still had an income: her Shell widows’ pension. We had no way of knowing how long she had left to live. I wasn’t going to waste time I could be spending with her, justifying myself to try and beg for state funding. 

Thank goodness, just thank goodness, there was enough in the kitty to pay care home fees for mum and keep me with her, without the heavy intrusive arm of the state trying to prove I didn’t deserve any support.

Thank god for dirty Shell oil money.

After our mother's death, six months later, my brother and I were her executors. We went straight to her lawyer to handle probate, which was expensive, but saved us both so much difficulty. I dealt with mum’s possessions; my brother with the lawyer. Eventually it was all sorted out, after a year.

Now I am able, for the first time since Australia, to be at home, writing, without needing to earn alongside it to keep the family going. My husband is doing fine. I have a cushion.

I don’t have the pension I would have had if I’d been able to remain in my university post. I haven't made it to professor. I am not a successful writer. My work as an education consultant does not change the world (let's hope it makes things a little easier for a handful of young people). I am aware that I live with an intra-marital pension inequality, which ties my fate to my husband's. Let's hope we can both live with that.

But. I took out life insurance, following a friend’s death, before I had the cancer scare. And I do have a small SIPP. I have downsized my expectations, and my financial reality, enormously from where I was before having children. 

Yet I am ok with it. Those six months spent with my mother before her death, with the woman I loved most in the world, were crucial to recovering from my shame about privilege.

And I don’t feel that I owe anyone anything anymore — not my parents, not society. I am finally free of a debt I never, in fact, owed. 

Yes, I was privileged to have the education I did. I also did the work to be worthy of it.

Yes, I have ended up a 'kept woman' in some – but not in all – ways, and despite my best intentions. 

Yes, because of inheritance, I am currently financially independent, not for life, but for long enough to mean I can really go for it as a writer for a while. No more doing it with one hand tied behind my back.

I am a composite of 'kept' and 'selfmade' woman. I am lucky, and you can see my scars.

My money story is a long, painful one about trying to leave home financially, prove I was independent, justify my privilege, and create a level playing field as a privileged white woman, many years before it became fashionable to be told this was something to be ashamed of. I've always been a pioneer.

The story failed, because it was always based on an ideological lie: that a woman needs to justify her very existence, and does not have the right to live or fail as she chooses. 

The truth is that I was privileged to come from a family that cared deeply about education, and believed in it. I'm happy they bought into that belief. I buy into it too.

The lie was that I needed to justify myself.

When I was in my twenties, my father told me, as we were driving down a narrow road, that he had not wanted more children, but had had them to please my mother. I was not wanted but tolerated.

That is one part of my emotional legacy: I was unwanted by my father. Did he love me? I will never know for sure. Yes, I think so. 'In his own way' is hard to square with my memories. 

But… I will always know that I was longed for, cherished, loved, to the very end of her life by my mother. 

And that is more than enough. That is infinite riches, more than many can ever have.

Now, as I turn 51 tomorrow, I am finally... free to write — not financially, but emotionally. 

I'd better get cracking: I'm as old as Proust was when he died.

Sunday, 31 March 2019

On Jonah Lehrer and living with lies

Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer's 2012 fall from grace, following the discovery of errors and 'self-plagiarism' in his published work, is a well-known story in academic and journalistic circles. It seems to have been, not his editorial mistakes, which are so easy to make, as much as his subsequent lies and deception about them, which really turned people off, and caused his spectacular career shutdown. 

In July 2016, Lehrer told the story of 'what happened next', for The Moth in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and children. Before you read any further, please listen to what he has to say: he calls the story 'Attachment'. 

I had been made aware of Lehrer's book Proust was a Neuroscientist back in 2007, by friends who knew I'd written on Proust, and who sent me copies of his work. Professional jealousy compelled me to smile publicly but privately find fault with it – he seemed only to have read the opening pages of A la recherche, and was basing complex neuroscience only on the celebrated 'madeleine' episode, rather than digging a little deeper into the Proustian manifold. 

Lehrer was co-opting Proust in his own broader argument – that we need to overcome what C.P. Snow called in 1959 the 'Two Cultures' problem: the over-valuation of the Humanities at the expense of scientific understanding in the British education system. 

'A good many times, opined Snow, 'I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists.' 

Snow goes on to point out tartly that the incredulous educated would have been unable to describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or even to explain mass or acceleration. I wonder whether Snow would make the opposite case now, when 'creativity' has been appropriated by tech, and the Humanities lie in ruins? 

I was undoubtedly guilty of scorn at Lehrer's lack of deep reading in Proust was a Neuroscientist, and am not too hot on the Second Law myself. But even I could see that, once he'd started lying, Lehrer's 'isolated system' of researching and writing too quickly, without thorough checking, had increased in entropy and was heading from order to chaos. Here was a man who had lived in his head too long, and was about to confront unforgiving reality very hard indeed. 

After his fall, he reached thermal equilibrium instantaneously. The process was irreversible. He was condemned to go home, tail between his legs, and face his wife and daughter. In the story he tells the Moth audience, he makes clear that, as well as being a poor scholar, he had also been an absent father. He had never once put his daughter to bed before the scandal that ended his career. Once he was home, she judged him categorically: she did not know him and did not accept him. She cried herself to sleep, longing for her mother, while he sat outside her bedroom on the landing, and cried too – for himself and his lost status. 

He confesses, humbly, that he does not find parenthood an adequate compensation for his lost career and success. It is tedious, messy, and makes him angry. Who knew? But he knows that he has no choice but to suck up his exile and imprisonment. After all, he brought it on himself, and must endure the consequences. It is the only manly thing left to him to do. 

I found – I find – it difficult to know what to think about Lehrer's story, both the fall from grace and his Moth story of life After the Fall. I had initially been jealous of his young man's success, both for professional ("you didn't read my book, mate") and excruciatingly personal reasons. 

In 2004 (as readers of this blog will be wearily aware), I was forced to make a choice between my baby and my career by my Head of Department, who refused to allow me to work flexibly. My husband was unwell, struggling with the fact of my return to work, and the pressure on him to liaise with nanny and nursery at the end of his working day without me, as I 'kept term' in another city. 

In this false Solomon's Choice, I felt I had no option but to resign my lectureship, so that he had the support he needed to keep working. By the time I read Proust was a Neuroscientist, I had been kicked out of academia.  I wasn't plagiarising or lying. In fact, I'd been teaching on more papers than anyone else in the department. I was pretty good at my job. All that would have been needed was a little support from the Head of Department – with flexible working, I could have gone on performing most of the same duties for the department, and been able to look after my baby, gradually rebuilding as she needed me less. The Head of Department was herself a mother, but would not countenance making a managerial decision to support me. 

I don't regret the decision I made. It was the right one – my daughter did not ask to be born, and deserved all the care and love that I could give her, and my husband needed me. My family came first, there was simply no question.  

Academic life does not matter so much that it is worth giving up marriage and motherhood for. It is not worth killing yourself for. It is not worth lying for.

I have long since made my peace with my choice. It's an old story. What I have never come to terms with, and never forgiven is the madness of the injustice. It was assumed, when I resigned, that I 'wanted to be with my baby', that 'my husband was the main breadwinner', that it 'made sense' as a decision, because I was a mother.  Those things were, of course, partially true. But they did not in and of themselves signify that I no longer wanted any status of my own. Who would willingly choose to abandon everything he had worked for during the course of his twenties, his research, his publications, his teaching… his reputation? I hadn't died. I wasn't ill. I hadn't committed a crime. I wanted to go on lecturing and writing, exploring French literature, keeping literary criticism relevant and alive. That's what I was good at. No one questioned whether there was something untoward about my decision, whether I was being bullied. I tried to tell people, but I wasn't believed. 

Like Lehrer, however, I was expected to defenestrate myself, simply because my partner and I had had a baby. This wasn't the 1900s. It was 2004. I was expected to quit without a fight… and I expected myself to sacrifice myself. Because what other choice was there? 

To put my intellectual needs before my child's? 

To be a writer when there was a pram in the hall? 

Jonah Lehrer stood alone on a Moth stage four years after his disgrace, humble and penitent, a lowly figure to be pitied, and ultimately forgiven. He has been punished enough, he hopes. He is still publishing science writing. He does some (not all) of the childcare – his wife didn't leave him, and they have a second child now. He carries his Fatherload meekly. 

I, too, stood alone on a Moth stage. It was in May 2018, in London, where I live with my husband and children. My story involved screaming at another mother, on a North London high street, in the spring sunshine at 9 o'clock one morning, on my way to a mammogram. Tra la la. 

There is a direct line that runs between the day in July 2004, when I signed off on my own exile and imprisonment, resigning my academic post for the sake of my baby, and the day in April 2017 – my mother dying of a brain tumour, my son bullied by the other mother's little girl, half my left breast removed because of early cancer – when I turned and faced her, a woman attacking me through my child, and finally stopped lying to myself.  

The volcanic fury I sprayed at the other mother that day was not entirely justified by her petty mendacity, I concede. I had survived far worse, and behaved far better. I knew I was just sinking to her level, shouldn't be wasting time on her, that I had far bigger fish to try.  

But it was the day I finally drew a line under the idea that I needed to live a lie, to accept other people's lies as any kind of truth about myself, and started to walk free of my own condemnation. My debts – debts I never owed in the first place – were paid. 

I was terrified to tell my story, and even the director was nervous that it might backfire badly – the audience might turn against me, and take the side of the other mother. After all, I was the one screaming at another mother. It wasn't entirely clear that I wasn't bonkers… It took many rehearsals for me to stop trying to explain and defend my actions, and just spit out the truth. 

I enjoyed unleashing my Fury.  

I made a decision about what I was going to do, in the very second I heard the woman tell a lie about my child, and I never apologised for letting her have it with both barrels, for teaching her a lesson she would never forget (and humiliating myself in the process). I had absolutely nothing to lose – abased as I had been, I could fall no lower.

The audience loved it. 

I will forever be grateful to The Moth, who helped me to tell the right story about my Motherload. I wasn't right to scream my rage, it was a guilty pleasure. 

And I. don't. care. 

Perhaps Jonah Lehrer could have used it as a longitudinal case study in his book How We Decide? 'Deciding fast and slow', perhaps. It took me a minute to sign away my life's work, and a minute to blast away my child's bully. But nearly thirteen years to decide to stop living a lie.  

Enough is enough. I didn't need to be outed by a fellow writer for my lies and deception. I just had to out myself. 

Tuesday, 19 March 2019


Thinking about The US Admissions Scandal had me reflecting on my own pathway through Higher Education and Oxbridge back in the 80s and 90s.

Wow, it only cost me bulimia and an overdose to get into Cambridge. Cheap at half the price! 

Luckily, after my own head of department ended my career as a lecturer at Cambridge, because I'd had a baby, it became financially impossible for me ever to pay Cambridge to get that baby into Cambridge. Or change the broken system from within. Or indeed, save for a pension. 

Instead, these days, Cambridge comes to me as an alumni, asking for money. 

Oh, and so does Oxford. I went there too (Just look for the Ingrid Wassenaar Library). 

These days I earn a living supporting schools and students from different kinds of background through the Oxbridge process. My main goal is that they should mentally survive it. I'm a Tiger Mother who won't be pushing her kids through the Oxbridge mill. 

External markers of success aren't all they're cracked up to be – but teaching young people to work out who is trying to justify themselves at their expense, and stand up for themselves, is worth every penny. 

Now there's a scandalous Admission.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Britain's broken childcare system

Where are all the children?

Nursery fees rise as free childcare scheme backfires

So this is how life in Britain will get worse, or has never improved.

In France, the State subsidises about 80% of the cost of childcare. They *just pay for it* and have done for years. The amazingly simple rationale is that it's good for kids, and good for parents.

No shit Sherlock.

In Australia, government offers parents a healthy subsidy towards the cost of childcare – it depends on income, but it's generous.

In Britain, the Government makes a promise to 'give' 30 hours a week of free childcare – but doesn't back it with nearly enough funding. This means that childcare providers are at risk of going bust, and have to start charging parents for the so-called free care, which excludes the poorest. The State is simply creating the conditions for a vicious circle. You can't tell both parents in a two-parent family, or single parents, to 'go back to work' after they have children, if you don't offer good enough childcare. Who looks after the children? It's bad enough that it's not seen as 'work' to raise children (the hardest work there is).

I started writing about these so-called intractable paradoxes (which aren't paradoxes at all, they are simple discrimination and state underfunding, in 2010), horrified and completely exhausted by the scrappy, sub-standard childcare provision in the UK, having enjoyed two years of well-subsidised, excellent nursery care in Australia, from 2004 to 6.

At that stage, there was still a childcare voucher scheme in operation in the UK, essentially salary sacrifice, poorly publicised, but a total lifesaver – IF the organisation you worked for understood it and agreed to implement it. That, it turns out, was the high point of the British state's childcare offer.

The childcare voucher scheme quietly closed its doors on 4 October 2018.

The idea that things have only got worse for families since 2010 fills me with despair. We are going under, because the British state has abandoned its responsibilities towards its people. The crisis in childcare is just one of the canaries in the mine.

We are all on our own.