Thursday, 24 April 2014

Dressmaking in the Dordogne

I was beyond thrilled the other day, when a woman came up to me in the playground, and said, "Your blog about going away for a month to write inspired me! I decided to ask for something at work, and now it's going to happen".

It transpired that she runs a dressmaking business, and an opportunity came up to run a dressmaking retreat in the south of France. Until now she would have longed wistfully to run it, then turned away to her domestic duties. This time she jumped at it.

"What was I worrying about? It's just a week!" she said. "But somehow I felt that if I wasn't there to do every single ballet class and school run…". She didn't even finish her sentence. She just mimicked rolling her eyes and pursing her lips in disapproving judgement.

I knew exactly what she meant – it's that continuous fear that we will be judged and found wanting by other women. That if we are not doing things 'perfectly', then we must be castigated, shunned, vilified. The trouble is that this 'perfection' is something cooked up by marinading age-old prejudices in a new jus of 'female emancipation', in which if woman want to have it all, they are expected to do it all, and do it without support. Even if you can see it for what it is, it is as hard to escape its clutches as it used to be to escape the wandering boss's hand in the office.

We looked at each other and laughed — for that moment, the demons of bullying social judgement fled to the corners of our self-perception. We both knew that this new corsetry is ridiculous. We both knew that this invisible but ever-present risk of judgement exists. We both knew that in order to live our lives, we have to fight to face it down. We both commiserated with each other at how hard that seemingly simple act is.

And then we were interrupted by another mother rushing up, wanting to ask about kittens, because this is the school playground, and we have all forgotten our social skills, and we leap upon one another shouting requests, reminders, tasks, advice, boasts, complaints, and all the rest of it, while small people at knee level clamour for snacks and attention.

But I was warmed to my very cockles by the thought of another mother doing what she needs to do to be happy.

Don't take your dry cleaning when you go for a run

I had a wonderful coffee this morning with a friend. She told me a great Motherload story, and I wanted to share it.

Before Easter she wound up a teaching job, and then went straight into the Easter holidays. On the first day after the holidays, her three children went back to school, and she was free for the first time. She decided to go for a run. She thought, "I'll just take the dry cleaning with me, and I can do my warmup walk, then go on and do my run".

It didn't work out that way. She did drop off the cleaning, then set off to run. But she didn't finish it. All the time, her mind was skittering from task to unfinished task. She didn't enjoy her run, and she felt dissatisfied at the end of it. She hadn't achieved it — completed it, finished it, won it, done it.

She was laughing at herself over coffee, but at the same time, she was angry with herself. "I should have laid down firmer boundaries," she scolded herself. "When I was working, I would never have fudged like that, and done another job while I was trying to exercise. My whole mindset has changed because I'm not going out the door to work."

So apparently she feels that, if she is not performing a paid job, she is no longer entitled to look after herself, and must justify time for herself by multi-tasking. Yet it's simultaneously clear to her that this is an unsatisfactory solution, because she isn't then satisfied with what she achieves. On top of all that, she beats herself up.

Multi-tasking is a lie. It is a convenient lie for anyone who is the beneficiary of multi-tasking. But it is a lie. Women are no better at thinking about and doing multiple jobs simultaneously than are men. But they are conditioned into thinking that, not only are they better at it, but that they must multi-task in order to be real women, or in order to be socially acceptable. If they do not multi-task, they are punished, through social disapproval. Yet multi-tasking leaves, not a sense of fulfilment and achievement, but that lingering sense of doing nothing very well, of leaving everything unfinished and disorganised.

Frankly I would love to have the time to do nothing, very well.

To do things well, you have to do fewer of them. You have to focus and prioritise. You also have to put yourself first. That is obvious. But women who become mothers find themselves in a social situation in which this perfectly obvious truth is no longer permissible. This loss boils down to a two-step process. What happens first of all is that their labour as mothers is disregarded to the point of invisibility, disavowed as though it does not exist, because it is unpaid. Then mothers are expected to pile on top of that multiple further roles, economic, sexual, social, communitarian. And carry them out without complaint or respite.

So in the face of that kind of ideological bullying, here's my advice.

Don't take your dry cleaning when you go for a run.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

We are all cyborgs now

I have been searching for a word that is analogous to 'anthropomorphism' but accounts for the attempt to describe humans in terms of machines or technology.

Mechanomorphism and technomorphism seem to do the job. I also thought about the Cyborg.

I think it is a fascinating development in humanism: for centuries, the unit of measurement was the human — feet and inches for example. We were anthropocentric, animating our universe through our self-understanding.

At the end of the 18th century, with the rise of Romanticism, writers focused on the awe-inspiring spectacle of Nature, which put man in his proper place and proportion.

With the Industrial Revolution, we saw language that pitted man against machine, and decried the mechanisation of our lives.

With the technological revolution of the 21st century, we have become enamoured of our machines, as Narcissus was enamoured of his reflection — we see ourselves reflected back, not in mirrors but in screen-based devices, and we are starting to conceive of human functioning, particularly mental functioning, which we still understand so little, as, firstly, disconnected from the bodily, and secondly, explicable through the 'explanatory' power of metaphors drawn from technology.

It's a fascinating reciprocity to do with man's ambition to know everything, be everything — after all it is our understanding of quantum physics which has enabled these devices to become possible.

As a female, however, I find it deeply troubling to conceive of myself as analogous to a machine, since it's no better a metaphor than was the old zoomorphism, which would happily conceptualise women as 'breeding animals'. To be a breeding MACHINE seems hardly better. It's as though the human linguistic capacity for self-description and understanding is undergoing a fresh transvaluation into the atomic and the energetic, still leaving out 50% of lived experience.

Or more frightening still, leaving women who choose to have children behind to be, perhaps, mutely farmed. Not sure anything about pregnancy, childbirth or parenting can be described technomorphically....

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Happy Mothers' Day!


On the tube today, after a trip to the Geffrye Museum, which I'd really enjoyed, for its insights into the Middling Class parlour, and the (now-gone) role of the Lady of the House, I found seats for my daughter and her friend, and spied an empty fold-down seat next to them. Both the fold-downs were empty, actually. Across them was parked a Maclaren pram (without its occupant, I hasten to add). I picked my way through the carriage, and started to lower the seat, until I realised it was going to touch the strut of the pram. Not wanting to cause any damage, I moved the pram a few inches back, so that I could sit down.

As the train set off, the pram tipped up, as they do when the handles are overladen. Instinctively I reached out to stop it, and looked up to find its owner had beaten me to it. "That was dumb!" I laughed, meaning nothing very much except a gesture of solidarity towards all the times this had happened to me. "Yes. It was," the woman hissed at me. I was taken aback: it suddenly dawned on me that she was furious with me. She seemed to  think that because I had pushed the pram away, I had somehow caused it to topple over. In fact, it turned out she just hadn't put the brake on. Yet she quite clearly blamed me. I decided to bury my head in my book, but my daughter observed that the woman continued to glare at me for the rest of her journey.

What on earth had I done? My own instinctive analysis is that by even touching her pram, I had, in her eyes, transgressed, and violated her personal space. Yet her family was sitting on two seats, and using another two to park a pram. All I had wanted to do was sit beside the children I was in charge of, and make use of the space available.

Surely the case can be made that on public transport we all need to share? Her aggression was so sudden and spiteful that I can only assume she was tired or having a row with her partner — nothing I did justified her attack.

This kind of public aggression directed my way is something I have only noticed since becoming a mother. I am still bewildered about it. I spend an unnatural amount of time trying to be a good citizen, making my kids stand if there aren't enough seats, getting up for others, helping people on and off public transport, chatting to people on buses. I'm essentially embarrassingly public-spirited. Doesn't make me a saint, but it's my own personal way of keeping the streets free of emotional litter, and it works. People respond for the most part, young and old (other than my daughter, who naturally finds me excruciating). I don't really care if people think I'm mad, what I'm doing is just normalising coexistence in public spaces. I enjoy life a lot more for doing it.

How can it be, I mused, that I have gone from bus drivers calling the police because I refused to fold my pram on a half-empty bus back in the day, to another mother hissing in rage at me because I dare touch her pram? I'm still the same person, the same mother.

Worst of all, I just do not know how to react when this kind of incident happens. It's not that I'm not prepared to stand up for myself. The other day, I had a very satisfactory moment of road rage. I had pulled over on my way up a hill, to let a big van come down it. The guy rolled down, then stopped next to me, and started to indicate right. So he was both blocking me from getting up the hill, and demanding to turn right into the mews whose entrance I had now inadvertently blocked. I groaned and rolled my eyes, and waited for him to realise what he had done, and reverse to let me get past, another van meanwhile pulling up behind me and trapping me completely. I was late on the school run, and the temperature was rising. Then I realised that the guy in the big van was gesturing at me to back down the hill, so that he could make his turn. The part of me that simply cannot stand injustice, especially when it's over tiny petty little issues like this, just erupted. I had decently pulled in to let him past, and he hadn't bothered to indicate his intentions, so he was at fault (not to mention that in theory I had right of way as the person driving uphill).

I got out of my car, slammed the door, stepped across to his open window, shouted at the top of my voice, "I am late to get my kids from school, and you just sit there -- all you have to do is reverse up the hill!", locked the car, and stormed off.

I was a quarter of an hour late to school pick up, and all the way felt both jubilant and terrified. I had left my window half-open — would I return to find the car full of urine? Scratched? Dented? The children were running ahead, very worried. Nothing. The guy had miraculously sorted out his little problem, found some other place to park, and there was my car waiting for me.

I felt oddly satisfied by that encounter. The guy in the van was so utterly shocked by my reaction to his little power play that he didn't say a word. I felt victorious, and not remotely guilty or as if I had overreacted.

When the woman was spiteful on the tube, however, I was paralysed. I have a horror of conflict (despite the big van story), and especially of conflict with women. And in a situation in which I was unjustifiably on the receiving end of a tongue lashing, words failed me. Had I taken up her provocation, there would have been an unpleasant scene, which would have upset my daughter and her friend. I decided to ignore her, and could feel her rage sweeping over me, but focused on enjoying The Golden Notebook. It was probably the right thing to do, but I am still bewildered.

There is quite clearly a gender component to my assertiveness. Whether I agree with myself or not, I am prepared to stand up for myself if a man bullies me (even if it tips over from assertiveness to aggression, ahem), but I have absolutely no weapons if a woman does it. This can only be because I have such a deep-seated view of women as oppressed, as needing my support and help in a world in which they will not receive enough of it, that I am astonished to discover they neither need nor want my heroic assistance. But the woman on the tube seemed to feel both aggrieved and entitled. She wanted a scapegoat.

Or did she? Would a truly confident person, even a tired one, do anything other than laugh at such a trivial incident? Time to put down the Motherload. Happy Mothers' Day.


Monday, 10 March 2014

Proving yourself

I was watching teenage boys the other day. Don't worry, I'm no cougar, although I was abstractly looking at their just-formed musculature, their flicky hair, their sulky pouts, and thinking how beautiful they were, these young animals, as they hopped and flew on their skateboards.

Our seven-year-old boy was trying to keep up with them on his trick scooter — half their height, without the fuzzy facial hair on his upper lip, and with upper arm muscles that look like tiny chicken dippers.

He tried to zoom up the board they had leant against a block in the skatepark, and didn't have the oomph to leap over its lip, so kept sliding back down, bringing the board with him. They stood in a row, a frieze of beautiful youth silhouetted against the setting Spring afternoon sun, calling to him not to bother, to stop trying.

Boy picked up his scooter and carried it off the piste, through the grass to sit behind a nearby tree. I sauntered casually over, to find him moodily staring into the middle distance. When I put my arm around him, he started to cry. "They don't want me. I'm useless, I can't do what they're doing. I'm hopeless," he sobbed. I whispered in his ear, "You're brilliant, you can do what you want, come back and try again, jump the steps like you did last weekend, don't worry about them."

He wouldn't at first, then little by little edged back onto the circuit, and took his place again among the boy-men, zooming round and round, avoiding, now, the high angled board in favour of a shallower angle, putting in little jumps and flourishing his scooter round when he hit the lip of a slope. He told me he loved me.

In the evenings at the moment, we are reading King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. I cannot recommend it highly enough to young men everywhere. The first words are:
After wicked King Vortigern had first invited the Saxons to settle in Britain and help him to fight the Picts and Scots, the land was never at peace. Although so much of it was covered with thick forests, much also was beautiful open country, with little villages and towns, as the Romans had left it not many years before.
Unlikely as it may seem, our son was mesmerised from the words "wicked Vortigern". King Arthur, the true king, valiant knight, and his band of fellow knights, proving themselves through impossible courage, maintaining the highest code of honour and reverence towards women, fighting evil all through the land, contending with magic and sorcery, creating an interval of peace and goodness in an epoch of darkness — it is irresistible.

For a long time I have dismissed chivalric literature as so much sexist claptrap, unbecoming to modern men and women. The roles for women seem laughable — to be either a silent and passive damsel, adored but inactive, or to be an evil temptress, trying to bewitch good knights into breaking their vows… that's not a great set of role models.

But now I'm revising my hardline views, at least as far as the knights go. Actually raising a boy has taught me so much more about masculinity than I had understood before. The unshakeable drive to prove oneself worthy of a higher and nobler calling (love), the need to have one's action's approved by a band of brothers, that all-in-allness that men establish between each other through competition and the fair fight is absolutely hardwired into them. They could no more let go of it than they could drop down and walk on all fours. To laugh at this drive is to wound a man profoundly.

I am often infuriated by my husband's deferring to me. I want him to use his initiative to work out where the socks go, or what the timing needs to be for everything to get done. It has taken me years to understand that I am his damsel (in jeggings), and that therefore he is doing me obeisance when he asks if I want the dishwasher emptied, or where his bank card is.

In understanding that boys and men absolutely have to prove themselves worthy to each other, and to the women (or men) they love, in order to feel like men, I have also started to rethink something else.

In the 1990s, I wrote a doctorate on Marcel Proust and self-justification. I wanted to understand how self-justification worked, and saw it as a universal kind of behaviour, gender-neutral. I did not necessarily distinguish between 'justifying yourself' and 'proving yourself'. And I still think those behaviours are linked.

But now I can see much more clearly that there is a powerful gender component to that thinking. In the main, men do not think that they are justifying themselves, even when they are, which causes a lot of problems, say in international relations. They believe that they are engaged in a noble pursuit of proving their worth.

Women are all too aware of justifying themselves because no one cares whether they prove themselves or not. In a man's world, women must resort to fighting, not to prove their worth, but even to be recognised, in an arena in which they are invisible. Men do not look at women except to love them (or be threatened by them). Women have no one to prove themselves to, except themselves. And so much of their energy is dissipated not in proving their worth, since it turns out there is no framework which recognises them, but in justifying themselves to themselves and each other. That's why women apologise. That's why they explain. That's why they feel terrible when they do either. No one is listening, they don't need to do it.  But at the same time, no one is waiting for their deeds, their prowess, their valour.

I'm presenting, deliberately, a cartoon vision of modernity. It's perfectly obvious that this isn't true for everyone now. But I think it goes a long way to explaining many women's frustration with contemporary society, especially after they have children — if no one is expecting them to prove themselves, even though they do prove themselves, relentlessly, and if having a baby is just seen as their 'normal function' (or even worse, a 'lifestyle choice'), and nothing to do with achievement, then of course, when highly educated, career-minded women become mothers, there is bound to be terrible conflict.

I'm not sure I have an answer (yet). All I know is that justifying ourselves is both part of the normal reflective apparatus — it can help stop us going out and killing each other, and instead push us to be kind, respectful and empathetic — and immensely destructive if unleashed against ourselves. It is bound up with guilt and lying to ourselves, and it clouds our clear vision of what we want, undermining us. Proving yourself, on the other hand, is a wonderful thing to do, based on focus, aims, goals, and winning prizes —if there is a level playing field.

I know now, after a decade of combat with myself and society, that, as a working mother, I am unable to prove myself as I once did, in a fair fight. There is nothing fair about being saddled with the responsibility for, and hard labour that comes with, raising the babies that come out of your body and continuing to try to prove your worth through your achievements. It is simply exhausting, depressing, relentless, and unfulfilling. I no longer feel, as I did for many years after starting a family, that I have failed. Now I feel I have brought the fight onto terms I can live with, by working from home. The only code I want to prove myself worthy of is my own.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

What's in a name?

I had a fascinating exchange of texts with a friend yesterday.

She felt that I should be writing under my real name, which is Ingrid Wassenaar. I replied that I was keen to write under a pseudonym, Ingrid Kirkegaard, because I married a man with that surname, and it has always struck me as hilarious. He is an Aussie, utterly irreverent, charming, lightning quick, and always says of his own name that, "It's unfortunate that the real Søren Kierkegaard only sired bastards". One of the many things I find funny is the sheer number of 'a's in our names.

When we married, many friends asked whether we would have a double-barrelled surname. We laughed, and just said that I wasn't changing my name. In Holland, it's usual for married women to add their husband's name to their own, as a kind of patronymic. It seemed too cumbersome for us, and I didn't see why I had to go around adjusting my name on every official document — it was bad enough getting my title changed to 'Dr'.

When it came to naming our children, we made all sorts of problems for ourselves. I suggested it would be a good idea to have my surname as one of their middle names, to inscribe their heritage inside their names. Not something we'd have to announce, but perhaps a memory of my father.

I wanted our daughter to have her father's surname, although — and because — we were not married when we had our first baby. I'd been pregnant and actually given birth, and it seemed to me, whatever my notions of patriarchy, churlish not to enable my partner to lay his claim to our daughter.

And it was, in fact, my decision to make. Because if you are not married, then in order to be recognised as the father of your child, the man must physically come with the mother to register the baby's birth, and assert his paternity. Without this presence, the mother's name is given to the newborn.

In the dusty registry office, passing our firstborn from lap to lap to stop her crying, I leaned forward and asked whether we could just put my surname on the same line as her real surname, although she'd be known publicly by her father's name.

This was agreed — and it was not until we had to apply for her first British passport, followed by Australian citizenship and passport, that we realised what my little moment of nostalgic vanity had done. My definition of 'public' was not the same as the Passport Office's. Her surname, according to the letter of the public record, was, in fact, officially Wassenaar Kirkegaard. We laughed at ourselves, but were not unduly worried. In practice she would be a Kirkegaard with a funny Dutch middle name.

When we married, we were just about to leave for Australia. My husband went ahead and I spent several weeks applying for Permanent Residency. As part of that exercise, I went back to the Registrar to ask for our daughter's birth certificate to be updated to reflect our married state. In fact there is no visible change on the certificate itself, but I wanted the (underlying) record to reflect reality. She was still officially Wassenaar Kirkegaard.

For several years this was all a joke that we ruefully told against ourselves — until the day that we were nearly not allowed to board a flight out of Adelaide with our daughter, because the name on the ticket was not exactly the same as the name on her passport. It was then that we understood that we had saddled our infant with a serious problem.

When we returned to the UK after our time in Australia, I went back a third time to the Registrar. I wanted to change her name officially, and thought I needed to go back to the source of the problem. But I had unwittingly used up all my go's. I was allowed to change it once, and had done so to reflect marriage. From now on, I would need to change her name by Deed Poll, and she might need to present both her birth certificate and her name change if required.

And that is what I did. I paid for her name to be changed from 'WASSENAAR KIRKEGAARD'  to 'Wassenaar KIRKEGAARD'. She is now the proud owner of a Danish-Australian last name, and a Dutch middle name.

We didn't make the same mistake when our son was born (instead I had to spend half my pregnancy proving the degree of my Britishness, in order to confer it on him and his children, because I was naturalised British and giving birth in Australia. Who knew?).

When my friend questioned why I wasn't writing under my real name, I started to think about it. Superficially, it was because I loved the irony of adopting the philosopher's name 'Kierkegaard' as my pen name, while being in fact married to a Kirkegaard. But it goes much deeper than that.

I do not have a surname.

Wassenaar is my father's name. My mother's maiden name was Lawrence. This is her father's name. Her mother's maiden name was Glibbery — which I loved, because it showed the traces of Dutch Huguenot in my mother, apparently English through and through. Glibbery was my grandmother's father's name.

Under patriarchy, the woman is given away by her father to her husband's family. She leaves her birth family completely and becomes a member of her husband's family. This is still inscribed everywhere in our culture, whether in religious terms or in bureaucratic terms.

I do not feel that this is what I have done. I have three families: the one I was born into, the one I have been introduced into by my husband, and the family he and I have created.

So what is my name?

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Time of the Month

How do I bring this experience to an end? I have just been given the most generous gift possible by my husband, my children, and my friends — a month, by myself, in the country.

To come away from my everyday life for a whole, fire-filled, walk-soaked, wind-wakened month, to be able to write exactly what I wanted and have been trying to write for so very long — the release from a bottle I have to stuff myself inside most of the time — has been… calm.

The whole point about being here has been its understatement. To be able to escape the hysteria of exams, schools, Forest School clothes, what Doris Lessing calls 'the housewife's disease' through her character Anna Wulf in The Golden Notebook:
The tension in me, so that peace has already gone away from me, is because the current has been switched on: I-must-dress-Janet-get-her-breakfast-send-her-off-to-school-get-Michael's-breakfast-don't-forget-I'm-out-of-tea.-etc. 
Each morning I have been able to wake when I need to, lie in bed and start to think about… anything, my dreams, where I left the writing the day before, the themes that might come up today; not grappling with problems that are barking right in front of my face, but able to use the reflective, intuitive part of my mental apparatus that works without our struggling with it. That can only work when we are not struggling and stressed.

The anger I feel at the way mothers are laughed at for losing their memories — no other role in the social order requires as much use of working, short and long-term memory as motherhood.

Why should motherhood automatically mean being utterly exhausted? Why should that be its badge of honour? Exhaustion causes ill-health. Do we want mothers to be essentially ill most of the time? I look at the Lessing quotation above and think, "Anna Wulf had it easy back in bra-burning 1962 — she could send her primary age child to school. We are forced by busy roads and social fears to walk or drive or cycle our children to school — not to do so is seen as irresponsible, negligent, abusive — and we are told (through looks and tuts) that we must like our freshly imposed maternal chores, regardless of what else we need to be doing with our time."

The extension of the duties of the mother in the postmodern age is in direct proportion to the emergence of females into public life. The more we come out, the more is asked of us at every age — our daughters are to be brilliant, beautiful, feminine, (and self-destructive cutters and anorexics with sexual and substance issues — that side well-hidden, and so sad, of course). We, the mothers, are expected to be Working All Hours, Successful, Competent, and simultaneously at home doing everything else. I don't know why: we earn no respect whether we do or we don't fulfil this role perfectly. Our own mothers (older, and so, of course, invisible) look at us in bewilderment, telling us "it wasn't like that in their day". We look at our mothers and wonder why we have tried so very hard to succeed, wonder whether our success has not turned around to bite its own tail.

Coming home from being a mother in the country, I am not at the end of a month of freedom, returning to prison.

This, for me, is the beginning of a new life, in which I practise what I preach. My children will do more for themselves. I will not help them in every little matter. I will not intervene as soon as they struggle. I will let them make some mistakes. I will turn the control and discipline that I have internalised as a mother into the control and discipline I need to keep writing once I'm back in the saddle. I will be present in one place, and will not split myself into my mothering self, and some separate identity called my working self. They are continuous with each other.

I am, whether I thought that's what I was choosing or not, the core of the family —and that is not the same as inequality. I want true equality, but for me that means nothing less than the liberation of all men and women from the tired mantra of "work harder, be more productive, spend more, look more successful!" It's nonsense, it doesn't work.

Men and women need to work shorter hours, share jobs, work closer to home, have access to great, cheap childcare. The government needs to fund that childcare. It doesn't last for ever, but many people will need it in their lifetimes, like pensions. Raising a child is not a 'lifestyle choice'. Employers need to move their attitudes out of the 1950s, and accept that flexible working is the way forward. Schools need to offer wraparound care, and stop training days in term time. There needs to be less playground presenteeism – stop guilt-tripping parents into coming to every single performance — have fewer of them! Spend the time reading and writing! And for pity's sake, stop testing the children to extinction. It's not as though there aren't models for this all over the world. The real solution to many of the social problems we are facing is the housing market. Equalise the housing market between North and South, stop the rhetoric of home ownership, cap rents, and you will eradicate the kind of housing hysteria that also adds to the motherload. Keep pleasures simple, and they will remain pleasurable, rather than turning into decadence. Listen more, stay off screens. It's not difficult.

I'm coming home.