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.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Proving myself as a mother

We recently took a trip to Holland, and were very excited to go by ferry. At least, I was – husband and children were a lot less enamoured of the idea. For me, it was pure Proustian Rush – the car queue in the freezing 6am wind and exhaust fumes on the quayside, the endless monotony of grey North Sea slapping the bows of the ship, the hours and hours of doing nothing except word search games in a stuffy lounge on fixed plastic seats – marvellous! The car ferry has not changed since the 1970s, and this made me preternaturally happy.

But at Dutch immigration, things took an unforeseen turn. Married to an Aussie as I am, I am used to his being sized up suspiciously at immigration. He was once nearly sent back to Australia as we stood there, whey-faced, at the London border control, after the twenty-four-hour flight from Brisbane, because he hadn't transferred his right to remain stamp into his renewed passport. I am used to cracking hilarious jokes about his being 'from the colonies', and he's used to grinning and bearing my frivolity. So when the Dutch immigration officer looked suspiciously at my husband's documents, I blithely explained to the officer, in my somewhat shaky Dutch, that we were on holiday, and he went off to get yet another stamp for hubby's passport.

How my face changed when the officer returned, leant into the car (blonde man bun and all), and asked if I was the mother of the two children in the back seat.

My first reaction was to laugh out loud. I was about to inform him that they were indeed mine but he was welcome to them, hahahaha – when I realised that he was being absolutely serious. His next question was, "Can you prove that you're their mother? You don't have the same surname as your husband. Have you got a marriage certificate, or a birth certificate for them?"

My mouth opened and shut. Images of giving birth, broken nights, endless school runs, countless meals, practising times tables, perpetually-renewed attempts to help with homework, return notes to school, buy clothes, put on birthday parties, attend shows, try and find childcare, arrange playdates, etc etc flooded my brain. I did not know what to say. I was sitting in our car, with my husband, and our two, biological, children, who look like both of us; children I – we – have spent the last fifteen years looking after, and I had no way to prove that they were legally linked to me.

Suddenly it occurred to me that what the passport man was suspicious of was my Dutch name, encased in its British passport, and different from the rest of my family. And that the magic key to proving my maternity might be encrypted in this modern oddity.

Many years before, in some attempt to honour my father, I had insisted on giving both our kids his surname as their third name, which meant that my surname matched a name embedded in theirs.  I babbled in my poor Dutch at the officer, and he slowly scrutinised their passports. To my intense relief, Man Bun waved us through into tolerant, welcoming Holland.

As we drove on, the enormity of what had happened buzzed round my head.

When our daughter was born, we were not married. The only way my partner could be recognised as the father was by turning up to the registration of our baby's birth. I was the one who named her, and gave her my partner's surname. I didn't need to, she could have had mine. If you're out of wedlock, it's the mother who has all the rights. To compensate for our sinful state, we gave her my partner's name as a surname, and my father's as a middle name. But, without understanding the consequences, and thinking we were having a Beautiful Moment, we entered both names on the surname line of the birth certificate, intending only to use my partner's day to day.

To our astonishment, our Beautiful Moment immediately turned into a bureaucratic nightmare. Far from casually being able to call our daughter what we wanted, the name printed on her birth certificate was needed in every official situation, which meant laboriously trotting out an unintentionally double-barrelled surname, featuring no fewer than nineteen letters and a combined total of 5 As. Having 5 As to her name made her sound like her own GCSE certificate. We were once questioned about her identity in Adelaide, when a plane ticket featuring only one surname was deemed not to match her passport, thereby nullifying her identity.

We eventually had to change our daughter's name, by deed poll, which involved putting WASSENAAR into lower case letters, so that it fell off the surname line into middle name territory.

I found it unsettling when our little girl entered childcare settings, and there was always a hesitation about the fact that she had one name and I had another – I was forever explaining that we weren't married, and finding myself apologising. The ghost of some kind of middle class shame haunted these conversations.

Finally, when we moved to Australia, and my partner headed off first, to start his job and find accommodation for us, I decided it would be better if we bit the bullet and married, to avoid any hesitation at border control when I flew over with our little girl two months later. But I still didn't change my own name – I really didn't see why I had to. After all, no one was asking my husband to, and I had all the effort of the Aussie visa to apply for, which took six weeks of near full-time bureaucratic self-justification to pull together. And I used to joke that I didn't really have a name at all, since the name I wasn't changing was my father's.

Yet, despite all our efforts to keep up with what the State wanted, we still couldn't, in peacetime, with completely up to date and proper documentation, travelling as a family, prevent an officious passport officer from forcing me to find a way to prove that I was the mother of my own children.


When my mother and father moved to the UK in 1974, my Dutch father applied to naturalise as British. Having lived under Nazi occupation in wartime Holland, he was afraid of what might happen if there were ever a war again – he did not want to run the risk that the family might be split up, as his brother's had been, put into Japanese prisoner of war camps in Japan and Indonesia. Because of his naturalisation, my brother and I had to give up our Dutch passports and become British. For the rest of my life, I will look Dutch and have a Dutch name, but be British.

In our post-Brexit world, uncertain of how relations stand between neighbouring countries, I realised all over again, held up on the Anglo-Dutch border, that our names do not identify us. Instead they mark us out as strangers.

We have half-dismantled patriarchy, and half-understood globalisation. I discovered all over again on the cold Dutch quayside that, whatever my identity 'is', it stands shivering at an intersection between those ideologies. My fate is forever to be an ex-pat.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Lessing go

Lara Feigel is publishing what sounds like a fascinating analysis of maternal ambivalence, centred on Doris Lessing. Feigel writes, thoughtfully and thought-provokingly, about Lessing and other female writers on ambivalence.

Here are the thoughts Feigel provoked in this particular ambivalent mother.

I took The Golden Notebook with me when I went away for a month to write the first draft of Motherload, in 2014, and it found its way into the manuscript.

I remember reading it in horror, while wind and rain lashed the February house, and I felt dreadfully alone. Horror, because I identified so much with Anna Wulf, and didn't want to have to. Why had nothing changed between 1962 and 2014?

Just reading the book made me question exactly why I had felt it so necessary to leave my children, aged ten and seven, for a month, to write a book about motherhood.

But it was perfectly obvious why. It had nothing at all to do with maternal ambivalence: of course I couldn't write if I had to bob up and down every five minutes at the behest of the State, the local community, primary schools, social mores demanding I do everything and paste a smile on my face as I did so, be thin, exercise, cook the right kinds of food, somehow straddle the divide between the classes and the two-tier education system, manage the NHS, understand a full spectrum of psychopathology, suffer from it, treat it in others and generally be responsible for it. Oh, and earn a bloody living.

Of course I loved my children – that was exactly why I was in thrall to the whole of society, trying to raise them as well as I could. Not to please anyone else, but because it's been made so impossibly difficult to raise children by the contradictory rubbish we are constantly being fed about how to do it.

Writing takes time and attention, and a place to do it. If all those conditions are missing, of course you can't write. But nowadays you're then expected to beat yourself up, for failing to overcome the conditions of your entrapment. The writing mother isn't Sisyphus, she's just trapped in a pinball game.

So bring on the trolls to tell me I'm a terrible person. Pah! I thumb my nose at trolls. Troll, c'est moi.

The Duchess of Malfi, before her murder, says:

What would it pleasure me to have my throat cut
With diamonds? or to be smothered
With cassia? or to be shot to death with pearls?
I know death hath ten thousand several doors
For men to take their exits; and ’tis found
They go on such strange geometrical hinges,
You may open them both ways: any way, for heaven-sake,
So I were out of your whispering. Tell my brothers
That I perceive death, now I am well awake,
Best gift is they can give or I can take.
I would fain put off my last woman’s-fault,
I’d not be tedious to you.

Exactly. The Duchess of Malfi: working mother. Any way, for heaven's sake, so I were out of your whispering.

Mumsnet was outraged when I announced I was off to the country for a month to write, and I was duly vilified – although a few people were kind enough to admit that the vilification was based on envy rather than fact. The Daily Mail nearly published a story about it. Why they didn't, I don't know, but I like to think it was because even the Daily Mail couldn't make money out of a mother simply… going away to work while the father looked after the children. However pernicious the social judgement, we are, let's try not to forget, in the twenty-first century, in an affluent, relatively progressive country, with laws that protect women, their right to an education, their right to vote, their entitlement to own property and to work. Even if those laws fail all the time. It is social attitude that prevents social equality, not patriarchy, the framework of which has now largely been dismantled.

We are battling demons now. And while we shout about non-existent demons, the social structures that keep us safe are quietly being dismantled behind the scenes.

I wrote thousands and thousands of words in that month away – a whole draft of the book, many blog posts, and while I was lonely and anxious and missed my children and my husband, I could not have achieved this while at home. And indeed I have gone on, for the following four years back home, not to have achieved this again.

My husband, who suggested I go away for a month in the first place, precisely because he had himself just been away for a month to work, is now suggesting I do it again, and this time go to Paris. The children are now fourteen and eleven, and it is eminently possible.

The reasons why I was not able to complete more than a second draft of the book in the four intervening years, however, have little to do with maternal ambivalence, and more to do with death, unemployment, terminal illness, employment, cancer, the book not being good enough, and bad luck with publishers.

I will go to Paris soon, not for a month, or for the six months I was away last year to be with my own mother as she died, but for a week or two, to be able to concentrate, and whittle away at this third draft.

Because I can't do that at my kitchen table, even though I have much more time and space, now that my children are at secondary, my husband has a good job, and most of my family has died.

Now I need to be in a place where I once thought of myself as a writer, to overcome my own imposter syndrome all over again.

To pretend to myself that I haven't completely failed, that it's possible to finish with motherload.

No more equivocation.

Friday, 2 February 2018

The Sewing Machine

The Bernina 730

While my mother lay dying of a brain tumour last summer, in a secluded Norfolk nursing home, hidden away in a suburb of Norwich, I would drive blindly up and down the M11 each week to be with her.

On each trip, I would return down the motorway with things hopelessly ransacked from a home no longer occupied, cold and still. I brought her jewellery back for safekeeping, and some of her scarves to tuck in a bottom drawer. Later I brought thick blue wineglasses from Teheran, tea towels, handkerchieves, her pots and pans, even the cutlery I had grown up using, nearly five decades earlier, much to my children's annoyance.

On one of these return trips, I don't remember when, I brought her Bernina sewing machine back to our home in London. For some months, the machine sat, squat in a pristine cream box, on top of her previous machine, which was in its own worn but sturdy green case, a clamp for its slide-on sewing table attached to the inside of the case, and a compartment for the electric foot-operated pedal. This older machine was also a Bernina, a 730. My mother had given me this model quite some years earlier, when she splashed out on her spanking new bells and whistles model in its cream plastic box.

The elderly Bernina 730 was manufactured in Switzerland, somewhere between 1963 and 1986. I do not know when my mother became its proud owner, but I can picture it sitting on a white desk, in front of a window with net curtains, in the room she used as a guest room, in the house she bought when we moved from Iran to Norwich in 1974. On it she sewed my A-line above-the-knee flowery dresses, worn with long white socks and sandals. Later it churned out khaki Clothkits dungarees, and eventually a spangled midnight blue skating skirt, worn with breathless trepidation and stomach held in, to a school disco in Cringleford church hall.

I remember turning perfectly serviceable skirts into baggy trousers on this machine, after a university-era trip to Turkey, with single lopsided seams and very poor hemming.

After my mum passed it to me, I would occasionally haul the machine out and set it up to make botched and impatient repairs, the needle thrumming madly up and down as I yanked material through. My mother would sigh at my carelessness, and say nothing.

After I had children, the machine came back into play to try to make our son's scuffed trousers last a little bit longer. On her other, newer machine, my mother turned out broderie anglaise-trimmed smocks and culottes for our baby daughter, who proudly paraded them as she waddled about on a Cambridge lawn, stuffing strawberries into my undergraduates' mouths, one summer's day after exams.

But now, here I was with two bulky machines, in a small house, rapidly filling with all the books, photo albums, silver, paintings and weaving of my mother's that I could not bear to let go. I knew I had to draw a line. A non-sewer did not, for heaven's sake, need two electric sewing machines.

I mentioned it to a local friend, a vintage and mid-century textiles designer, herself originally from Norfolk, wondering if she might know of anyone in need of a machine some five decades old but still going strong. She smiled, came and tried out the machine herself, bit her lip, but knew that, like me, she did not have the room. She put the word out.

Barely a day later, someone had written to her — a seamstress from Staffordshire. She was asking would I be prepared to courier it, and how much it would cost. My friend did some online ferreting, and came up with a price for me. The seamstress and I were duly put in touch by mobile. That evening I received my first text:
Hello Ingrid, I hope it's ok for me to contact you at this time. I work as a seamstress on industrial machines, but need a domestic for buttonholes and for sewing in my home when it's too late to be in my workshop!
The next day, sitting in a cafe, I sent her back a text with a price for the machine and for the courier.

To my dismay a message flashed up immediately:
Hello Ingrid and thank you so much for getting back to me. Had I seen the machine last week it would by now have been on way to me! however, poor weather conditions have taken their toll on my conservatory roof, and yesterday I had a roofer over to assess damage. I'm afraid that due to the fact that it's going to cost in excess of £900 I'm no longer in a position to purchase the machine. I'm so sorry as it would've been treasured here. I hope you manage to re home it to someone who will love and appreciate it.
Gutted, I texted back:
If you would really like the machine, I'd be happy to drop the price, and wait until you felt in a position to take it.
Minutes later came her reply:
Ah Ingrid that's so kind of you to offer to wait for me. The problem is that that would probably bother me more than the roof issues! I'm not sure when I would be able to afford to buy it as I'm on my own with my children and although I work very long hours my spare cash doesn't mount up very quickly!
I read the text. A minute passed. I thought, but it was not thought. There was no time to think. I typed:
I'd just like to give it to you if you would be able to use it. If you would be happy to pay for the courier cost, it's yours. 
Seconds later, a text pinged back:
Oh Ingrid I'm crying! This is so very kind of you I can't believe it but I'm feeling uncomfortable about not being able to pay for it. xx
I sat stunned in the cafe, surrounded by chinking coffee cups and chatting people, tears running down my face. The whole drama had played out in a matter of minutes. We had never spoken, never met each other, and now here I was, pressurising a complete stranger in another city to take my mother's old sewing machine. She must think I was mad.

I tried to reassure her, telling her I understood, to take her time, to sit with the idea for a bit. I tried, somehow to explain:
Thing is, you see, the kindness is not mine, it's my lovely mum's. She loved sewing, and then gradually moved to weaving and textiles. Have a think, and let's be in touch. 
Back flashed her answer, needle-quick:
What a fabulous life your mum must've enjoyed being so involved in crafting, we are very fortunate. I thank my lucky stars every day to have been blessed with this inherited gift. I'm a third generation seamstress! 
Exhausted, we took our leave of each other, the matter unsettled, broached. Later that day, I had to take my eleven-year-old son to an optician's appointment. Afterwards, we walked home hand in hand, through the cold January air. I told him the story of the sewing machine.

Before I had finished, he interrupted me. 'I hope you gave her the machine, Mum?' I said that I'd tried to offer it to her, but that she hadn't yet accepted. He was silent for a while, and then he piped up:
'You know Mum, I think you're moving on. You said you'd always know what to do because of your mum, and now you're just doing it, without asking her.'

The following day there was a new text:
Well last night I told my daughter our story. There were inevitable tears from us both but her words to me were... firstly, you are so blessed, this kind of thing doesn't happen to other people and secondly, on the day that I'm in Ingrid's position I would hope to find someone like you to gift your machines to. So, on the basis that I will respect, cherish and of course use your mums machine for the rest of my life I now feel comfortable in accepting it if you would still like me to have it. 
There followed several days in which, via a comedy of errors, the machine was taken to the courier, left behind, in an agony of nerves, to be packed and shipped, and the seamstress tried to use mobile banking to pay the charge. Text followed text between us, as we tried to understand why the money was popping up and pending, not deliverable, what was mobile, what was online. My heart was constantly in my mouth, fearing that the highwire of goodwill we had so improbably strung between us was going to come crashing and tangling down. Were we each who we said we were? Neither of us picked up the phone, all was recorded in the back and forth of blue and grey speech bubbles of text appearing on our phone screens. She could not see me, and I could not see her. We were both blind, feeling our way. In the end she had to post a cheque.

On the third day, I got the news: 'SHES ARRIVED!!!!!!! xxx'

For the seamstress, my mum's Bernina was female:
She's a real lady 😊what a beauty I'm absolutely over the moon. All polished up, test run done I just need to check out oiling points as I'm not used to that as my industrial machines sit in a bath of oil which is majorly different! I'll never forget you nor your mother for this Ingrid because this is very very special indeed xx
Oiling points! Suddenly it came back to me — my mother had shown me the little red-painted dots all over the machine, and given me a yellowing plastic bottle of oil with a long stem, many years before. She had warned me to watch out if I was sewing white fabric, as sometimes the oil could leak out, and stain. Proudly, I passed on my technical knowledge. Back came the response:
Well, I've given this very robust little lady a spring clean, she's been oiled, dressed up, had such a lot of praise already and she's even worked a little bit! She's much more forgiving than my usual work mates, that's for sure. They're definitely male, very hench and not at all sympathetic. I've many a needle up the side of my nail bed I can tell you that! None of that with my Bernina. I've a table in my garage that I need to renovate, I'll be putting her on it for when I need to work when it's dark. 
I told her how much I loved her description of my mother's machine, holding her own like a lady against the rough old male industrial machines. She laughed:
Haha she'll do that alright she's a little tank! Aside from my family I absolutely live for my work and all my aids are loved, looked after and cherished because they pay the bills and keep us in our home. Now all I need to do is find time to renovate the table!! xx


Whenever I find that I am missing my mother, which is more often than I care to admit, I take out my phone, and I scroll through this thread of messages. I think about the third-generation seamstress in Staffordshire I have never spoken to, with my mother's sewing machine on a table in her garage, oiling it, dressing it up, and talking to it, fashioning buttonholes late at night, loving her work and thanking her lucky stars for her inherited gift.

Her name was Julie Spendlove.

I look at my own life and wonder why I make such a meal of it.

My mother's final words to me were: 'Do what you have to do, Ingrid'.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

On grief

The writer Matthew Parris wrote in August 2009 about the grief of losing his father several years on, and I so wish I could send him a letter. If I could, this is what I would say.

Dear Matthew,

Thank you for your wonderful essay about losing your father. I think what I was so grateful for was the permission your piece gave to feel exactly as I do feel about my own mother's death – that there really isn't a single right way to feel or to grieve. I know that rationally of course, and tell others this all the time. I was surprised to read your piece and realise how easy it is to feel that one's own way of grieving is somehow wrong, or 'not good enough'.

Your writing about what it is like, five years after losing your father, and your memories of what it was like straight after he died, gave me the space to feel my own feelings, some two months after losing my mother, and offered me the huge consolation that I do not need to worry about forgetting, or feel guilty about what might have been (or no more than one's unconscious mind already beats one into feeling). There is no need to beat oneself up, or experience certain things, and feel that one has failed if one does not...

I find that I feel 'wobbly' in myself a lot of the time – it's almost physical – and as though slightly removed from the world. I go about my daily business, I nod, and smile and talk to others, and do my work, and life looks from the outside as if everything is back to normal.

It's just that it's not – everything, for me, has changed. It's like the magician's sleight of hand – the frame has moved slightly to the left, and so what I see through the frame looks like a completely different thing now. Mum was my frame, and now she both is and is not my frame. She still is, because she always was, but now it is I who have to go on adding little bits and pieces to that frame, I have to go on building it by myself, because I am the frame for my children.

I accept it, I had the time to accept that things would change while Mum was ill, and now I live with the change, but I won't know, really, how to do it until I have come to the end of doing it. That's what is new: I have had certainty, and now I do not. Except that, of course, I have it in my memory.

I also have the certainty that this is the greatest grief of my life – and, in a very strange way, this too is a consolation, to know just how important she was, through the magnitude of the grief.

Except that this 'magnitude' doesn't translate into 'drama', not in any direct sense. It is very quiet. And it is not 'pain' in any sense that I have known it before. I understand a little now about physical pain (although still not very much, thank goodness). And I've experienced several kinds of emotional pain in my life, and assumed that grief would feel like pain. But it doesn't.

I've been overwhelmed by my feelings so often in my life, but grieving for Mum isn't overwhelming me in that sense. I'm not washed away. That's the whole point. I remain, because she built me, and made sure that I could stand on my own two feet, no matter what came at me, even losing her, even facing my own mortality. That is her legacy. She needed and needs me to pass that test, not to be washed away, in order to live on herself. If I collapse under the weight of my grief, then what will be left of Mum? The point is the continuation. She has taught me that – I didn't know it, or couldn't feel it before she became ill, perhaps because I didn't need to learn that lesson, I could still rely on her.

All my life, I have looked at life as though it were a series of exams to pass, long after I stopped actively passing exams. And each time, the exam was the end in itself, and also the end of the world. I would put everything into passing, without ever really stopping to think about what lay beyond. The end point and the goal were the same thing as the timer in the exam hall. That was my perfectionism, and it's always been my blinkers, what kept me safe, but also blinded me.

I will always have that tendency to treat life like an exam, but now I see that the point is to examine life, not to be examined. Mum judged herself by the scale and quality of what she gave to others, not by what she acquired or achieved herself. The acquisitions and the achievements came alongside her generosity to others.

I found it painful that she put others' needs before her own, even when she was very ill. I wanted her to put her own needs first, or express them more, or be demanding, when she had every right to be demanding.

But now I think that perhaps, in fact, she met her own need by putting other people first. She was happy when she did this. Her need was to be needed.

And she was needed, very much.

Now I have to face life accepting my own version of this – my own need to be needed, which I know is there, and believe in, but have always sat on, because I fear that it turns me into a doormat or a martyr. Now I see that it doesn't – that that quiet inner certainty is the prize. I have always longed to be a calm person, like Mum was – and I am not a calm person, because of course I am not my Mum, I am different, and myself. But her voice is inside me, that I know, if I can only listen to it.

So that is where I am, Matthew. Measuring the loss, knowing that it is loss, and knowing what there is to make of that loss, not haunted or beset by regret, just sad, somewhat lonely, a little worried, but knowing that my worries are minor. Afraid of being wrongfooted by things around me, and swept away, yet more certain than I have ever been of what is right, true, good, through having lost it.

Like you, I know that I will live with grief for the rest of my life, but I do not see that as a prison sentence. Grief is not something to be recovered from. It is not an illness. I'm lucky to have this grief, lucky to be able to know the quality of this feeling. I did not know that, whatever else it is, grief is what sustains us in the face of loss, and compensates us, like a comforting touch, for that loss. Loss comes, and goes, anyway. Grief remains. We go on with it.

Thank you so much for your essay, Matthew. It helps so much.

Yours sincerely


Friday, 9 September 2016


(written by Graham Lineman and Sharon Horgan)
OK, I admit it. I flew off the handle about Motherland. Or rather I flew off the handle about a a perky young male reviewer in the Guardian – one of the smug new breed of reconstructed men, who have managed to reconstruct a society around themselves in which they think they are feminists, while never actually doing anything in the family that doesn’t serve their own interests first. 

Mean, I know. Below the belt, yes, literally. Accurate? Almost certainly. I can do hard satire too. I do apologise if I hurt anyone’s feelings.

But to Motherland itself. I actually watched it last night (as opposed to writing about it first). 

On second thoughts (or first thoughts if you’re going to discount my pre-thoughts, which were, for the most part, and though I flatter myself, absolutely accurate), Motherland could be the start of something really interesting.

You see, it’s billed as a hilarious new sitcom about what it’s like for modern mums, but for more than half of its viewers it won’t be comedy, or even drama, it will just be the mumdanity of their every waking minute.

Motherland isn’t a comedy, it’s a documentary.

The Working Mother we see at the beginning, stressed to the point of screaming and crying in her car as she tries to juggle the school run, while fielding calls from work demanding her pointless presenteeism (“I don’t actually need to be there while she prints out a form… yes, two children, yes, five and nine… yes, no, I’ve just got some childcare issues, I’ll definitely be in on Thursday”)? That woman didn’t make me laugh at all. I was just watching myself.


Before managing to move our children to a primary school within walking distance of where we lived, I used to have a ‘school run’ that took maybe 45 minutes or an hour, Monday to Friday, in a car, to travel about a mile and a half. Too far to walk with very small children. Even slower by bus. No options. I would sit, stalled in traffic, having been that fraction too late to push the kids out of the front door to have beaten it, tears rolling down my cheeks as I realised that again, despite my best efforts, London was going to defeat me before 8.55am. Oh, and when our son was three, the idea was that, in order for him to attend the school's nursery, I was going to do this run THREE TIMES EACH DAY: 8-9am, 12-1pm, 3.30-4.30pm. Six times. There and back. I'm so sorry if I sound fussy – but that's insanity.

I remember sitting one day, near the end of this nightmarish period, in the playground of the school where I was later to become the chair of governors, after one of these runs. I was catatonic, unable to speak, sobbing… in front of a woman who had herself suffered so appallingly from mental illness that she had had to be sectioned. She was trying to comfort me as Samaritans and psychologists must have tried to help her – her words were those of one attempting to pull another back from suicide. I only wish I were joking.

Don’t worry reader, I did not want to commit suicide. I’d quite like to stick around and make it to old age. I just want society to WAKE UP, and see what it is doing to its women, as it demands that they hold it together for no money, no promotion, no visible source of hope, while being kicked about, put down, and stressed to the point of breakdown. Working Mother, c’est moi.


Back to the show. Motherland is a great title – as we watch, we realise that what is at stake is akin to what awaits us all post-Brexit, an island of narrowmindedness defined by what it excludes, that has been invaded and colonised and is now ruled over by Amanda the Queen Bee, and her spagbol-for-the-children hazing rituals.

The Queen Bee (or Alpha Mummy) in Motherland as in every single playground and cafe up and down this fair land at the moment, is the self-appointed arbiter of what constitutes acceptable motherhood, in the same way that Theresa May is the self-appointed arbiter of what constitutes acceptable Britishness. Anyone who won’t comply or doesn’t conform (for which read any mother poor, single, working class, male (they can be 'mothers' too), or just plain working) is brutally excluded:

“It’s wonderful how you can just… switch off from your family, and go to work. [Beat] I just couldn’t do it, I’d suffer too much, I’d die for my children.”

The Queen Bee prowls the boundaries of Motherland, driving mothers who do anything other than mothering to its margins. ‘Good mothering’, in Motherland, means sitting on the big table in a posh cafe while your children play prettily, making plans to go on holiday and talking about home extensions and mani-pedis. 

At the end of the pilot ep, we see the Working Mother, definitively rejected by the Queen, drunkenly linking arms with out-of-work Single Mum, who freezes all her food including cheese and eggs, and who has stoically taken herself to A&E in a taxi after chopping off the top of her finger, trying to make her friend a cheese sandwich – Working Mother having not eaten all day. The final sequence shows Working Mother trying to get Single Mum to take her children on Thursday, so that she herself can go into work.

Working Mother's other arm is linked to that of Stay-at-Home-Dad, utterly emasculated, utterly excluded by the Queen Bee and her servile courtiers. The only other men in (or rather not in) Motherland are: (i) the Working Mother’s husband (calming deciding what kind of coffee he’d like, and putting down the phone on his wife with a breezy “I’m right behind any decision you make, darling”); (ii) the Queen Bee’s husband, phone glued to his head, viciously barking at women and children who enter his home and dare to stray into the living room, as opposed to milling downstairs in the basement kitchen, his trophy wife’s domain.

We dimly begin to realise that the Queen Bee is stranded in the very Motherland she has been forced to create, pushed back into her designer lair by the affluent economic circumstances which allow her to preen in public in the local cafe, and pretend she is looking after her children fulltime, but which really mean she has no purpose in life other than to keep up the appearance of financial success.

The real enemy isn’t Amanda the Queen Bee, and it isn’t even the unpleasant man she married – it’s late capitalism, and its intersection with the English class-based caste system, back in full force after a few hopeful decades of progressive pruning.

A class system with some new layers: those linked arms? The Stay-at-Home-Dad, the Working Mother and the Single Mother? All of these types are outcasts from the new face of the middle class. All three types have been ousted from the class they grew up in, and have been pushed to the margins by the new divisions in our society between rich and poor. All three types thought they were choosing, but were always being chosen for, as Britain has gradually sunk beneath the waves between the Miners’ Strike, and Brexit.

The airbrushed Amanda herself, in this tottering pyramid scheme – the one currently governing our society – can only be sustained on crazy money, the kind of money that can only be earnt in the financial sector itself. Usually by a man.

The whole thing, through the Alice in Wonderland prism of Motherland, can only be sustained on the paradoxical pretence that staying at home to raise children isn’t work. And this is why Amanda and her courtiers are scandalised when Working Mother is discovered eating the children’s spag bol out of the bins, and asks the Queen Bee if she could possibly, like some perverted Oliver Twist… have something to eat.

We can only pretend that ‘looking after children’ isn’t simple unpaid labour if care is dressed up as a perma-party, and exclusively aimed at our little princes and princesses, while the women serving them pretend not to have needs of their own, pretend, essentially, not to exist at all. 

If Amanda has to prepare food for another woman in her own home, then she is no longer the Hostess, but a woman without servants – she is in fact herself the servant. When Working Mother asks for food, she rips a hole in the artifice, and the Real reveals its horrifying head.

The Queen Bee can only maintain the lie that she is in control of her reality and her destiny through intrasexual bullying and hazing. Analogously, and further down the Motherland food chain, Working Mother can only maintain the lie that she is in control when she turns up at her children’s school after the insanity of the school run – and discovers it is half term – by accusing a complete stranger’s child of bullying hers, and then, when this lie is about to be exposed, blaming her own children for manipulation and exaggeration.

All of this social comedy is well observed, as if on some checklist of clichés governing modern women’s lives. Every mother will have had at least one of the experiences documented in Motherland

The wittiest moment in the whole show, however, is when the excluded Single Mother lip synchs the conversation between Queen Bee and Stay-at-Home-Dad – she voices the subtext of their blocked and failed interaction, in which he struggles, manfully, to express solidarity about breastfeeding, and finds himself beaten back by a dominant female primate, all breasts and lips, defending her exclusion zone on the top table in the cafe. 

Single Mum is both Chorus and protagonist in this drama – revealing the workings while pinioned by its structure. I want to see more of her. She might just be the future.

What is, in the end, truly brilliant about Motherland, and gives it the potential to be a new genre of comedy, the Frankenstein offspring of Outnumbered and League of Gentlemen, is the way it veers so crazily between naturalism and the grotesque, the way 'reality' is shown to tip over at any moment from normality into psychodrama in the world of modern mothers. For so many women, that crazy veering is their reality. 

Where British culture salvages something from the wreckage of its own self-destruction is through its comic history – at last, the spirit of Monty Python is coming along to save mothers.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Groundhog Day

Well, once again, it's a delightful day here in Motherloadland. Its early September, Indian Summer, the leaves are on the turn, the tan is fading, the children have skipped off to school in their new uniform and shoes, little faces shining and upturned for new knowledge.

I feel I have been here before. It feels a lot like all the other Septembers I've had in my nearly five decades – I used to be the child skipper, now I am the adult skipper. Wait! Let me reach for an apt, Tim Minchin-flavoured metaphor – my life feels like Groundhog Day.

I myself have just returned from comparing plastic clothes airers in Tescos and John Lewis, paying over good money for the one that looks least likely to break in my hand, and for yet more socks for our son, because he seems to eat them. I've made a coffee (another one!) and I'm just sitting down to finish writing a book.

Only I can't write, because I'm SO BLOODY FURIOUS ALL THE TIME. As I seem to have been since 2003.

Let me give you a cultural flavour of why my inner Furies are off the leash. Again.

Coming soon to a screen near me is the film Captain Fantastic, by all accounts a riveting tale of Swiss Family Robinson meets Bear Grylls meets Frankenstein – a radical libertarian leftist father decides to raise his six children in the woods, to take them close to nature, to teach them to live off-grid, to learn to sustain themselves, and to read Middlemarch by candlelight in the evenings – as we all did in the Good Old Days.

Oddly enough, his muscular eco experiment (one radical step on from muscular Christianity-cum-Thoreau-cum-New World Settler-kumquat) comes a cropper when he has to return to the City, that malign purveyor of all of humanity's ills. Turns out he's forgotten to teach his children how to cooperate with others. He's un-hothoused them.

Qua film, it sounds like a great thought experiment – the perils of extreme parenting! Don't make your kids do maths GCSE aged 10! – but, as usual, the mother, who in most childrearing scenarios, whether woods or suburbs-based, is doing all the work, is silenced.

I sympathise with Viggo Mortensen. I mean, I've tried to raise my kids off-grid from my base in the woodlands of North London for the last thirteen years, but we've only got as far as me yelling at them every day for leaving the TV on standby. My biggest victory is making my son walk to school – obviously when the paedophiles aren't out to get him. Oh – and he can poach an egg.

My husband suggested, lightheartedly, that we watch Motherland on iplayer tomorrow. Poor man. Why does he do it to himself? It sounded Fun – until I read the chatty Guardian review, written, obviously (and so wittily and self-deprecatingly), by a man – a new father! – hilariously terrified by the apocalyptic vision of his wife's future stress.

How marvellous it must be to have a day job in which you review television programmes your wife is too tired to watch, because she is looking after your baby! How deftly ironic that you include this in your review! How hilarious that the 'jokes – punchlines, slapstick, blink-and-you-miss-them visual gags' that apparently feature in Motherland will constitute the actual lived experience of your spouse for the next decade! Because the 'exaggerations' of Motherland sound a lot like my daily reality used to be – until I started to say, hand on heart, and as a loving mother of two, and former management consultant, 'I don't care, do it yourself'. 

Wait until she's whey-faced with it, mate, wait until she's standing screaming on the pavement at her little sweetness, because he is being an arse, and would rather watch television and eat biscuits than walk to a piano lesson. 

Wait until she's crying every evening, wondering why her dutiful and well-executed middle-class education never prepared her to have her career stuffed, her body shafted and shamed, to have complete strangers tut, roll their eyes, or just plain tell her off in the street, to be reduced to endless cooking and tidying and decluttering the family home, frantic with deadlines for endless primary school performances, without a social life, all the while being told she is Having It All, when what it feels like is the unreconstructed 1950s. 

Then come and tell me over a quinoaccino how funny, ironic and post-postmodern Motherland is. 

(Addendum: having now watched Motherland I can vouch for my own hyperbole. Motherload is when hyperbole IS reality in a woman's life. Motherland is supposed to be a comedy, but to me it was a documentary).

Make no mistake – if we have got to the point where our culture is wall-to-wall carpeted with ironic parenting STUFF that is constantly, subtly, hilariously pointing out how hard it is to be a mother, how overlooked, how put down, how competitive, how overworked, what witches and bitches and gossips and sharp-elbows all mothers are – while simultaneously making feeble jokes about how emasculating this is for fathers (Mum on the BBC, Josh Howie's Losing It, Radio 4, How it Works – The Mum, the hilarious faux-Ladybird book lampooning maternal drudgery, Modern Family, Outnumbered)… then we are in trouble

Not to mention – but I've started so I'll finish – today's Woman's Hour offering, the erudite Professor Alison Gopnik, with her new book The Gardener and the Carpenter, informing us (again) that children are Little Scientists, that their play is about hypothesis-testing, about how we need to grow our children like plants in a garden, not put them together like wooden chairs. I know! Bad parents! Beat them with their own woodwork tools. 

Does Alison Gopnik have any idea what it costs to Raise a Child Like a Garden? I understand, exactly, what she is arguing – I used to argue idealistic things like this when I was a researcher in a university writing beautifully-phrased pieces about French literature. Play is marvellous! I still love play! Back then, I imagined myself remaking society as I raised children in a gentle aura of calm nurturing, listening and love.

That was before I became an actual modern mother. Perhaps Professor Alison Gopnik would like to come to my house and help me when I'm trying to make sure my kids play and do the moronic spelling list ready for a test on Wednesday, and focus on extra maths, and that they're off the TV/phone/social BLOODY media and that you've done the weekly shop and that they have clean clothes and enough socks, because they seem to eat them. BECAUSE NO ONE IS HELPING AND EVERYONE IS CRITICISING. Where's my play? Everything in my garden is dying, but nobody's building me any chairs. 

Nothing is changing for women – in fact discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace has actually got worse between 2005 and 2016, and now we're supposed to find it funny, too?

How many feminists does it take to change a society? It doesn't. It takes a society to accept that women are female, and not men in dresses or drudges in pinnies. Or stupid.

I think we may have been here before. We're on our second female Prime Minister, first time as tragedy, second time as farce. 

I'm exhausted. I'm furious. I'm experiencing Groundhog Day. Please wake me up when it's all over.