Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Waiting for...

Tomorrow it will be 6 weeks since some surgery to remove early breast cancer. All is well, I have heard from the surgeon that there is no microinvasion. Healing is progressing as it should.

Three weeks ago, my surgeon dictated a letter to another hospital, requesting a referral for radiotherapy. I was in the room when he dictated it.

Apparently NHS letters have been outsourced to somewhere in India to be typed up. I don't know what happens to them after that -- who actually prints them out, sticks them in an envelope, franks them, takes them to a post box.

All I know, and you can probably guess what's coming -- or rather not coming -- next, is that that letter never made it to the other hospital.

Day followed day, and I tried to hurry up and wait. I busied myself, knowing that there would inevitably be a delay while appointments were made, telling myself that a few days, a week, a fortnight, wouldn't matter, that I needed to trust and accept. All that mindful stuff.

Eventually I could stand it no longer, and just called the hospital myself. This is when anyone first knew that no letter had materialised. Almost immediately, via phone, text and email, an appointment was made. For a further ten days off. Nothing to be done, no clinics before this.

Radiotherapy, apparently, is set up via a consultation meeting, then a planning meeting, and finally the actual therapy. I can't speed these meetings up, or skip one, because different departments have to be aligned. I have no way of knowing what the gaps will be between the meetings, and when the therapy will finally begin.

At the end of July, we are booked to fly to Australia, to see my husband's parents. This has been booked since April, and is not changeable. It's four years since we have been able to take our children to see their grandparents. It's not just a summer holiday, it's crucial.

I know, already, that the radiotherapy I need to have is an insurance, not a necessity. My breast will be tattooed and will shrink and be burnt, and it's not necessary. I'm doing it because I've been advised to -- and I've been advised to, not because it's a medical necessity, and not because it's actually going to prevent cancer returning there or anywhere else, but because it reassures my surgeon that he has done everything he has at his disposal. And I am afraid not to go ahead... just in case. Even though I know rationally it will make virtually no difference, now or in the future.

I know that I am powerless to prevent either of two scenarios happening: either the therapy will take place right up to the wire of departure, in which case I'm likely to be exhausted and wrecked travelling round the world. Or it will be postponed until the Autumn, pushing back the reconstruction surgery, and meaning that essentially the whole of 2016 will be taken up with treatment for early breast cancer.

I feel perfectly well, apart from the fact that my mind, will, sense of humour, capacity to plan and act are gradually turning to stone, as a direct result of this situation. I feel dissolved, absent from myself, immobilised.

Having dealt with the cancer itself as if I were preparing for my A levels: reading the set texts, doing practice papers, remembering to answer the question, staying focused and holding my nerve, I am finding this sagging limbo far, far harder to deal with. Like the so-called War on Terror, the big problem is that the enemy isn't tangible or visible. Looking back, my sense of triumph at vanquishing the cancer owed a lot to sports psychology. I WON (never mind that cancer got a bit of breast). Dealing with waiting is like dealing with a cloud. What do you PUT it in?

Dr Seuss puts his sweet, avuncular finger on what is so grim about being forced to wait in Oh! The Places You'll Go!: in this classic graduation gift, he addresses the reader, pointing out the joys and perils of a life well lived. One of the darkest places is The Waiting Place:

…for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil,
or a Better Break
or a string of pearls,
or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls,
or Another Chance.
Everyone is just waiting.

Typically, Dr Seuss manages to make The Waiting Place bearable by making it sound funny and silly. But everything is in the repetition of 'Everyone is just waiting'. Despite all the rich variety of ways to wait, they boil down to the same experience -- not being able to move forward, and being dependent on indifferent others for one's security, happiness, deliverance.

'Just waiting' is something every one of us experiences at some point in our lives. It is an experience of powerlessness, since we would not be waiting, were we able to do something to shorten the wait. Waiting implies waiting for someone or something which refuses to hurry up, refuses to grant you what you want. Waiting is passive and infantilising -- I have found myself reliving experiences of waiting which go right back to my childhood -- waiting for results, for a viva, for a birth, for conveyancing, for books to be published, to get over a broken heart, to recover from grief, to grow up. Waiting is associated almost exclusively with negativity and suffering (illness, judgement, trauma), while its more optimistic cousin, Anticipation, is bound up with hope and desire (love, birthdays, holidays).

Both waiting and anticipation make time stand still, but for vastly different reasons.

Samuel Beckett mines waiting for its black comedy in Godot -- 'Nothing to be done' is done over an immensely long time by Vladimir and Estragon.

King Lear blasts 'Nothing will come of nothing' at his daughter Cordelia, who will not give him the flattery he wants, and thus lays bare his egotism and narcissism. She makes him wait for the rest of both their lives, until he finally understands that her nothing meant everything.

Waiting is infantilising, recalling a time when we were helplessly dependent, waiting for someone to rescue us, our only power our ability to cry.

Now that I am a mother, I can understand another dimension of waiting: so much of mothering or parenting is about waiting for your child to grow up -- hoping it will turn out well, trying to savour the here and now, knowing that the best you can hope for is that they successfully abandon you, waiting for them to learn the lessons you know they must learn before they go into the world without you.

Perhaps the reason why I'm so upset about that lost letter is that, cancer or no cancer, my whole existence has already been reduced to waiting.

Monday, 16 May 2016

The Lawnmower

Yesterday, I came home from scotch eggs and slabs of carrot cake with the children and my husband, eaten outside at the local farmers' market, in the May sunshine, to discover that my son had chopped up the cable to the lawnmower.

I'd gone to the shed for something else, the kneeler, so that I could do the weeding. I confronted him immediately, not even entertaining the possibility that the cat, my husband or my daughter might have committed the crime.

He stood in the tall grass and weeds at the back of our garden, his mother lowering at him from the shed door, holding out flailing snakes of orange flymo cable at him with trembling hands. He looked up at me, and didn't try to deny it. 'Yes,' he said, 'I did it.'

I set off into a furious tirade, appropriate to the occasion, utterly outraged and disbelieving, aware that the neighbours would be sticky-beaking each side of our tiny garden.

In my head were mad images of corpses, severed limbs, my son the future axe murderer.

I stormed off inside. I did not know what to do, with him, with myself, with the maimed lawnmower. I rushed back outside, and manhandled the thing through the house, dumping it by the bins.

Then back inside, to shout some more at my son, by now playing lego indoors, and defiant.

'Why did you do it? What on earth possessed you? Don't you realise it's a CRIME? That if a man was caught doing that, he could go to prison?' I flung the words wildly at him.

'I did it because I was angry with you. I did it the Wednesday before last. I did it because you'd taken my pocket money away for something –'

'I don't remember anything about that – if I did, it was for some other thing you'd done WRONG. What is wrong with you?' His face was furious, closed. He stared at me.

Pokers of fury were thrumming in my head. Incandescent, I smacked him, said, 'I'm so angry I could kill you' – dimly heard myself, quoting Helen from the Archers, and forced myself to leave the room.

I snatched the computer, brushed past my daughter, who was trying to tell me she'd written the thank you cards, and pounded upstairs. Throughout my crashing anger and bellowing, another voice had been quietly saying to me, 'Ingrid, you could probably buy a new cable. Ingrid, can't you see that it's quite funny?' But I shoved that voice down. I couldn't calm down, didn't know how to – for me, my son's action was terrifying – a sign of mental disturbance – an extraordinary sin. I couldn't even summon enough rage to show him how big his misdemeanour was – I was left gulping and grasping for words vast enough to encompass the transgression and its epic consequences, like a fish flopping beside a lake brimming with crime.

I sat on the floor in our bedroom, helplessly talking to myself, tears everywhere, possessed. 'I hate you, I wish someone would take you away, I wish you were in boarding school, how could you do this to me, after everything I do for you, you appalling child, you foul creature…' I don't clearly recall what I said, but along those lines. Spitting out the words that didn't seem to belong to me, foam-flecked.

At some point, my husband came in. Sat quietly on the floor. Listened as I poured out bile and invective against our child. He didn't say a word. I gradually became aware that my head was exploding in pain, that I felt physically sick. He took me downstairs and gave me a glass of water, rubbed my back as I took paracetamol and couldn't stop crying.

*

Some minutes later, my son came to me, his small face full of worry and apprehension. He reached out his arms for a hug. I knelt down so that my face was level with his.

'What you did frightened me, my darling. That's why I got angry. I think you were very brave to tell me the truth, when you knew I would be angry. When you know how angry I get.' He sat down on the cool floor of our dining room, sunlight making a window-square across him. We looked at each other.

'I get scared when you're cross, Mummy. I didn't do it to get back at you. I was just doing an experiment. I wanted to see what would happen.'

We hugged. We apologised to each other, he for cable-cutting, me for fury-frightening. I explained how terribly dangerous it would be if something were plugged in and he cut the cable, that he might get an electric shock, and could even die. We agreed that he had enough money in his account to pay for a new cable. He ran to get his money from his piggy bank. I ordered the part online.

My migraine gradually subsided. All evening I felt dizzy and shattered, white and fragile. I had plugged myself back into my past, and given myself a terrible shock. When things went wrong as a child, my father was instantly, scaldingly incandescent with rage, roaring in the house, a huge foreign presence. Countless evenings ended in misery, storms, shouting. I tried so hard to be good. I wanted so much to make it better, to make him happy. Nor could I contain his misery – it would burst out of me at endless meals, when he would either eat in heavy silence, or there would be some argument, something to wreck it all. I would run away from the table, go to my room, cry and cry and cry. Much later, my mother would come up, and try to calm me down.

*

My father was never prouder than when he rode around the lawn on his sit-on mower. He would dress in full-length overalls, a baseball cap on his head, with one of his hankies, legionnaire-style, fluttering behind, and he would steam up and down the grass. We had a large, beautiful lawn, ringed with dwarf apple and pear trees. My mother tended to her vegetable patch, and my father mowed the lawn. The sit-on mower transcended the older petrol-driven red-hubbed push mower, which he kept in the barn, as if in a rural mower museum, using it to trim the front lawn. The retired Royal Dutch Shell engineer, with his two solitary engines, stranded in the back garden of a former farmhouse near Norwich.

*

Yesterday one wire was severed and another connected. I fell into my past and was electrocuted, but managed to spew up most of the pastwater, clamber out, come back. My husband, with the infinite love of husbands, saw me across the divide. My son, with the infinite love of children, welcomed me home, and I, with the infinite love of mothers, saw the funny side of what a little boy had done, just to see what would happen. I short-circuited the past, and came back to the place where I have it in me to keep things in proportion, where not every unfortunate incident requires a tribunal and an exorcism, where sometimes a cable is just a cable, and not a metaphor for a grisly crime-stained future.

I'm not sure what possessed my son – but I'm completely aware of what possessed me. Those minutes spent in our bedroom yesterday afternoon were the same attempt to purge myself of pain as the bulimia I had when I was desperate to leave home, get away from my father, and wasn't quite ready. With each day that passes, I am better dispossessed.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Shame

In the past few days I have found myself thinking a lot about shame.

This is not a word I like to use – who does? The whole point about feeling ashamed is that we want to die inside, curl away from the world, convinced of our terrible worthlessness.

Shame refers to the painful feelings of humiliation and even distress, caused by our own perception that we have done wrong, failed, or made a fool of ourselves in some way – whether or not we have.

Brené Brown has studied the power of vulnerability, and the transformative possibilities of confronting shame head on. She also happens to be the most wonderful public speaker. That woman is fierce:

http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame

There are a number of points she makes which go straight to the heart of what shame is and why we need to deal with it.
  • 'Shame is a focus on self; guilt is a focus on behaviour.'
  • 'Shame is 'I am bad'.  Guilt is 'I did something bad'.' 
  • 'Shame drives two big tapes: 'never good enough', and if you can talk it out of that one, 'who do you think you are?''
Most upsetting of all – 'Shame is highly, highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders. Guilt is inversely correlated with those things. The ability to hold something we've done, or failed to do, up against who we want to be is incredibly adaptive. It's uncomfortable, but it's adaptive. '

I have suffered from every single element on that list.

Brown believes shame to be organised by gender: for women, shame means not being able to meet the contradictory standards imposed by society – perfectly (something I long ago gave up doing). What Brown is talking about for women-with-children, I term 'Motherload'. For men, it does not mean this web of unattainable, conflicting demands. It means being weak.

It's important, however, not to leave our definitions of shame in gendered boxes, because the experience of it is universal. We have all felt the 'warm wash of shame' – the very word is onomatopoeic, referencing that sense of drowning in an endless ocean of the feeling when it happens to us. Not to be able to feel shame at all, ever, is a sign of sociopathy.

Conversely, the capacity to feel shame is linked to the capacity to feel empathy. In fact empathy is the antidote to shame. Shame, she says, needs three things to grow: secrecy, silence and judgement – it cannot survive if it's 'doused with empathy'. The two most powerful words to a struggling person are, 'Me too'.

For Brown too, the capacity to be vulnerable is profoundly linked to courage – in the words of Teddy Roosevelt, linked to 'daring greatly'.

*

In the wake of being treated for early cancer, and deciding to go public with the idea that I had called my little carcinoma 'Wendy', in honour of a woman who once bullied me into leaving a job, I felt a multitude of things.

For the first time since my decision to sign my name to a paper – my resignation letter – that essentially condoned her behaviour towards me, I feel no shame.

Somehow – and it is mysterious to me, but it has definitely happened – either facing the surgery, which terrified me, or making a joke of my shame, or both, ended their power over me.

In facing my fears about cancer, and therefore my own mortality, and in learning that I had it in me to comfort myself (with support – I'm not going to pretend I did it alone), but also, and crucially, in laughing at my fears, real though they were, I have, at last, been able to step out of the deep, hot pool of shame that has saturated my life for the last thirteen years – all of my daughter's life. My beloved daughter, who turned 13 today.

In the days that followed deciding to name my shame, I have had a series of epiphanies that have inverted my entire world view. Like locks opening in a canal system, I have understood, at last, that I grew up in shame – my poor, poor Dutch father's shame. I was the product of a second marriage, and my father, I have suddenly, blindingly, seen, never forgave himself for, as he saw it, failing his first family. Never forgave himself.

I was raised in shame.

My phd on self-justification in Proust, that unpronounceable word, ended with a study of vulnerability, and the astounding realisation that self-justification has to stop for anything else to happen. Doh! It never occurred to me that shame was part of my story, or the story of the research I was undertaking. What I never worked out while writing that doctorate, or had said to me by anyone commenting on that work, was that self-justification's inner lining is shame. I had got to the right answer – that vulnerability is the royal road out of self-justification. But I had never even named the problem I was trying to solve. And without naming it, I was doomed to repeat it forever.

We do not need to justify ourselves. But we will never stop unless we can face what shames us.

I am forty-eight years old, exactly the same age my father was when I was born.

I have identified my Dutch Courage. And I no longer need it.

I have named my Motherload. And I can put it down.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Why Ariel's #ShareTheLoad campaign got me all of a lather

Ariel India's campaign, known as #ShareTheLoad, was made by BBDO India, and went viral after it was endorsed by Sheryl Sandberg.



Sandberg posted the ad on her Facebook page, and wrote, 
This is one of the most powerful videos I have ever seen – showing how stereotypes hurt all of us and are passed from generation to generation. [...] When little girls and boys play house they model their parents' behaviour; this doesn’t just impact their childhood games, it shapes their long-term dreams.
It's true that the ad has a powerful emotional appeal, but I don't think Sheryl Sandberg is in the group she talks about. Because otherwise she would not be in the powerful societal position she is in. Clearly, whatever was modelled for her (if her theory of social engineering holds water) resulted in her empowerment. 

Stereotyping definitely hurts us all – but it's the way stereotypes are perpetuated and not challenged in this advert that irritated me at first.

There's no question it's an arresting ad. The narrative is, at first sight, genuinely original. A father watches as his daughter, who seems to have come home from an responsible office job, immediately starts multi-tasking. She walks rapidly round their affluent middle-class apartment, starting a document on her computer, picking up toys, getting dinner on the go, making her husband a cup of tea (while the lazy blighter sits cradling his laptop and watching TV – he barely looks at her), putting on a wash, giving her father a plane ticket she has sorted out for him, in the middle of her working day. All the while cradling a phone against her neck. I found myself longing to tell her about mindfulness.

The father is dismayed. He sees that his daughter is overworked, at least in part because of the way she has been raised from birth, by him and his wife, to serve others, and to carry out all domestic chores, however much else she is trying to do. The implication is that she is doing at least two jobs, while her husband only does one. Yet she is only being paid for one – the other is simply her expected, unquestioned, allotted role. 

And she does not question it herself.

The scales fall from the father's eyes, he writes a letter to her to apologise, and promises that he will try harder. We see him return home to his wife, and unpack his own suitcase. The last sequence shows his bemused wife showing him how to use the washing machine, and the punchline flashes up: 'Why is laundry only a mother’s job?'




I freely admit that I shed a tear when I watched it. I, too, posted it to Facebook (although I don't have quite as large a following as Sheryl Sandberg). It immediately provoked a lively debate – less because of the ad, however, and more because of my negative reaction to it.

My tears were tears of anger. I felt exhausted and cheated by the ad. My life is not like the daughter's in the ad, because I have worked long and hard to make sure that it is not, battling attitudes and assumptions, many of them internalised, others reinforced by people around me, usually other women.

I was watching a company that sells soap powder – mainly to women, since it is mainly women who do the family shop – tell me that:

(a) doing the washing is 'only a mother's job' (whether I like it or not)
(b) that 'dads' ought to share this load.

Well, Ariel India, the 'dad' I married already does share the load. Before I met him, he knew how to operate a washing machine, and he didn't lose that capacity because we got together. He's not a moron or a layabout. And I can tell you that, first of all, 'dads' aren't going to watch this ad. Secondly, they are not going to change their behaviour because of an ad, if they are already boorish enough not to share the load. Thirdly, since when has doing the washing been 'only a mother's job'? 

So, somehow, men come out of the ad (well the father does) smelling of Ariel, while – unless I'm much mistaken – nothing much is going to change in anyone's behaviour. I wish it would, but I don't think a soap ad is going to wash it.

To my great surprise, however, my Facebook friends didn't agree with me. They felt equally strongly about this ad, but for different reasons:

1. It is aimed at newly middle-class Indian women: social attitudes in India are less progressive than they are in the UK, so anything that seeks to move things more towards equality is a good thing.

2. If the message is a good one, does it matter where it comes from?

3. It is noble in the father to humble himself to his daughter.

People were taken aback at the strength of my reaction. One person even asked if I was unwell (it was extremely well-meant, but nevertheless perplexed me).

So I started to think more about why I was so upset by the ad. It was when a friend gently said, 'Is it because you see a father saying sorry?' that I understood.

My father, who was born in 1919, the year after the First World War ended, was at home for much of my growing up, having taken early retirement. He pulled his weight all the time. He drove us to school. He paid for school. I remember him changing the sheets, and vacuuming. He supported my mother completely – woe betide anyone who criticised her work or her food. The only thing he couldn't do is cook (my mother had to freeze meals before she went away).

It never occurred to me that men and women did not share the domestic load until I left home.

What made me cry about the Ariel advert is that my father never said sorry for some of the other things he did – the shouting, for example. Actually I tell a lie. He did once say sorry, in the early stages of vascular dementia, when I was in my thirties. He raised a hand as if to strike me, and I coldly looked at him and asked, 'Are you going to hit me, then, like you used to?' and walked away.

Later, he came to my room, a guest room in my parents' house, where I must have been staying for a weekend. He said he was sorry, and we fumbled for words. I felt ashamed. All his strength was ebbing away. His raised hand was about his clouded mind, and not about the past.

Separately from my emotional reaction, however, comes my political anger. This ad might have been filmed for the Indian market, but if it resonates the world over, this is evidence, of a certain kind, that women the world over (however superficially progressive their societies) can still identify with the double standard that persists, as they are asked to take on more and more roles, while men continue to do and be praised for only one.

Oh, and I did one other thing as well as post the ad to Facebook, dear reader.

I taught both my son and my daughter how to put on a load of washing.

Because washing is boring, menial, necessary and has expanded exponentially since the days of the Monday Wash. We wash clothes every day. Sometimes I realise I have done three loads of washing in one day. We go through a washing machine every four years. And because a family is a team, not some individuals with an unpaid female servant.

Here, from my soap box, is my top tip for Ariel: don't tell me what I already know. Why don't you make some adverts that tell us how to do less washing, instead of trying to capitalise on social inequality to sell us more of your environmentally-damaging product?

Now that would be truly responsible.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

What cancer has taught me (with jokes)

My mother-in-law's raspberry cupcakes
Ever the student, I have learnt a lot from this (fingers crossed) minor encounter with cancer.

It's to do with how I cope best – through silence, telling almost no one, yoga, exercise, practicality, being Dutch about the whole thing, cutting out any white noise that derails me, being more ruthlessly focused than I normally let people know I am, looking at the positive and the concrete over the chimerical and the negative.

And jokes.

The negative is, of course, there, I don't deny it, lurking about in an anti-matterish sort of way, but, in my life, I have welcomed in far too much of that, felt I had to be negativity's caretaker. And that is linked to allowing myself to be bullied, and miserable. I'll take Newtonian over Quantum mechanics for the time being. The sub-molecular level will have to wait.

What I've learnt is… that a well-timed joke has a therapeutic power as great as a surgeon's blade.

I'll never not be my intense self, but sending myself (and a few others) up is probably more entertaining than my long screeds of introspection and self-analysis. 

Sorry about those, and thank you for putting up with them. Here's another one.

Transmuting Wendy-the-Bully into comedy gold for cancer is one of the best jokes I have ever told (still fundraising, we're currently at £3100+, thank you to every one of you, my heartfelt thanks, here's the link...) – and I now recall that Wendy and I met because of another of my Hilarious Jokes.

That poor woman loathed me from the very first time we met (I feel her pain), which was long before I was at Cambridge as a lecturer. I was a post-doc British Academy research fellow at Queen Mary College London, and was an examiner on a paper, I believe on Proust. She was the external examiner.

In the examiners' meeting, I deliberately cracked a joke, because we were all tired and tense and nervous. Wish I could remember what flip remark I made – apparently it was a killer.

Everyone fell about laughing, and the mood lightened. Except Wendy. She was not slain by my wit. She gave me a sour lemon look that was intended to kill me on the spot. It puzzled me, but it did its job. I shut up. I think, for Wendy, my cracking a joke constituted a Direct Attack on the Establishment, the Examination Process, Her Authority. All that sailed in her and what she stood for would necessarily be corroded and ruined by my Younger Woman's levity. How dare I

Actually, I wasn't that young. I must have been 30 or so at the time, I wasn't exactly an upstart. Academic rates of promotion will have you pretty much in your grave before you earn a salary comparable to your qualifications. I think it's because part of the kit is growing a grey beard, and I could only manage blue stockings at the time. That's all changed.

I knew, from sourlemongate onwards, I would have problems if I ever encountered her again. Sure enough, at every encounter we ever had in Cambridge, she went out of her way to make things really, really hard for me. I mean, to the point where it was actually funny, looked at from a certain angle, until she finally seemed to have the last laugh, and I resigned. I can only hope she chuckled into her All-Bran that day, and danced about her kitchen. Free! Free of the radical!

That wasn't the problem, though (well, it was quite a big problem, because I didn't have a job anymore. But I digress).

The problem was that I then carried her around, like a tiny Wendy-me, lurking in my body, for years and years afterwards, because I already believed the things she thought about me. I was, indeed, superficial, lazy, a slacker, pretentious, self-seeking, fat, unfashionable, unkind, ugly, stupid, aggressive and competitive (NOTE: some of that stuff is true, but I'm not going to tell you which bits).

Why do you think the blonde girl felt she needed a phd in the first place?

A phd on self-justification?

It was easy for Wendy to prey on me – I welcomed her in. For an intelligent woman, that was a remarkably dumb blonde thing to do.

*

This week I took chicken soup from Platters on the Finchley Road to a friend, also post-op. I was given Platters' chicken soup by a wonderful friend a fortnight ago, and now understand that it is the Jewish equivalent of Asterix's magic potion. 

My friend and I talked and laughed (not too hard, we didn't want to bust her stitches). Then she looked me in the eye and said, "You know, what got me through was that I have this… voice I've made up in my head; it's partly my mother's voice, and partly mine, and I would talk to myself, going through… you know… and comfort myself… You must think I sound mad…". I was staring at her, transfixed. 

I walked through a door this week, and closed it behind me. I understood, once and for all, this week, that the only thing I failed at when I was a child and adolescent was to absorb my mother's soothing, comforting voice. It was no one's fault. I blame no one for it. She did the best she possibly could. It's just what happened. I went into adult life, not so much with a thin skin, as without a way to comfort myself. I hadn't learnt to love myself unconditionally.

It has simply taken me until now, nearly thirteen years into motherhood, and with the help of so many others, to grow my own 'inner mother', who can take care of me when times are tough, and help me to keep the Motherload safely at bay, and allow me to look after others without hurting myself.

I was often called, hilariously, an 'eternal student' when doing my phd, and later, when living in a college set as a lecturer. When I was finishing my doctorate, I remember reeling down the road in North Oxford, with a voice in my head saying over and over, "The answer's love, now what's the question?". I think I apologised to a lamp post for bumping into it. 

I've finally reached the punchline to the joke. Who loves ya, baby? 

Sunday, 17 April 2016

I've called my cancer Wendy

Pre-op Dutch Courage


So Motherload fans, I've been quite absent from this blog for a while, and I've got an excuse.

On Thursday I had surgery to excise some very early breast cancer.

Now, this won't be a long post, because I'm still post-op and a bit tired.

But I wanted to pass on a few things that have interested me on this journey.

1. I found my lump on 22 February 2016. This also happened to be the second anniversary of the death of a wonderful friend, Jane. She was the bravest woman I have ever met. She died of ovarian cancer. We met, the day after her diagnosis, when my little girl went round to play with her little girl. We looked at each other and burst out laughing. What is the etiquette for a playdate chat about ovarian cancer with a mum you've never met before? We became firm friends. We learnt mindfulness together during six sun-filled weeks in her kitchen, as her cat strolled in and moved around us, happy and curious. Another friend I'd made through my daughter's school did the course with us, and it was run by yet another friend, who came from another of my many lives. My worlds were brought together in Jane's kitchen in the quiet and the birdsong.

2. I found the lump about two weeks after starting a new job, as a writer in residence for a divorce law firm, Vardags. I was so nervous about starting a job in the City, that I took to making the journey in a pair of pink trainers, then changing into a pair of high-heeled Shoes of Prey beauties, to pretend I was a kickass writer. What I was, was a tiny, frightened, mess of a writer.

3. I had been offered an amazing opportunity to take on some change management work for a company, just prior to starting at Vardags – I'd asked to defer it because of no. 4 below, but I was going to have to get going on it imminently. I quailed at the prospect of fitting it in.

4. I had, furthermore, issued a Facebook promise, like an idiot, that I would complete the second draft of Motherload by the end of February. Couldn't stand down. Not after six years.

5. Oh, and there was still the little matter of my tutoring eight hours a week after school, being a school governor, doing university admissions work…

6. And being a mother.

Keeping these six things in play, around supermarket trips, parkruns and yoga, turned into the framework that got me through the subsequent two months. That, and the ruthlessly and insistently appointed two-woman support group of Viking Sisters, who used Whatsapp to keep me off the ceiling, breathing, moving forward. Two months of going to the breast clinic for mammogram and biopsy, then having a second (eye-watering) biopsy, then being told by phone that there was, in fact, a minute carcinoma, but having to wait for the official confirmation, because there was a second area in doubt. There was the small matter of going on holiday with my extended family at Easter, and not being able to tell them. There was the delightful coincidence of my 48th birthday, three days ahead of the surgery.

To my immense surprise, deciding to tell no one, not even my mum (apart from my husband and my corralled Viking Sisters, who didn't have a choice in the matter), turned out to be the right move. I longed to scream the news from the rooftops, in the hope this would somehow save me from actually having cancer, but at the same time, I knew that I had to keep my head down, shuffling on, bracketing, parking, compartmentalising, prioritising. And to my second immense surprise, doing this gave me a huge boost of power and motivation.

Being, as I am, a recovering Proustian, and therefore given to telling everyone absolutely everything that happens to me, in laborious detail, using the imperfect tense, not telling people about the most frightening thing that had ever happened to me was weird. I had a secret.

Twelve years ago, when I was – as I never tire of telling people – kicked out of Cambridge for having a baby and a father dying of dementia, my head of department worked as hard and ruthlessly to push me to resign, as I worked from February to April of this year, keeping my secret.

She made damn sure that when I went to her, requesting flexible or part-time working post-birth, she left no stone unturned in humiliating me, trying to invade my personal life, and ultimately in just refusing my request. I could have done all my teaching in the time available as a part-time lecturer, and would have done it, didn't want to let my students down. Oh, she was thorough. She'd spent three years getting me ready for the final push, undermining me and provoking me. I mean, she was really very good at bullying. It's an art form.

As I went on to realise after quitting, and having to struggle without a job or a pension and two babies, I'd also been a very willing little helper. Good little girl that I was, I had willingly swallowed her hatred, and patted it into place with the rest of the things I loathed about myself. I was, it slowly dawned on me, good at being bullied.

When you find a lump, you go through a range of emotions: fear, anger, hysteria, grief are the main ones. When I found my lump, I duly went through all these things.

But something else happened too. I started to call my lump Wendy, in honour of the toxic waste I'd swallowed at the hands of my erstwhile head of department. In honour of the woman who was in a position of power over me, and saw fit to try to destroy a young woman at the start of her career. Because one thing was for sure. I was going to get rid of Wendy. My surgeon was going to help me to deal with my inner bullied once and for all.

And it was't just my surgeon. I knew I had to tell my new boss that I was going to have to slow down, maybe stop for a bit once the surgery was definitely going to happen. I dreaded telling her as much as I dreaded having surgery.

In the event, I need not have worried. Because the only thing my boss was worried about… was me. She just told me to do what I could, and not to fret about it. I went into the surgery on Thursday, safe in the knowledge that I worked for a woman who cares about her employees, who has worked out that a little trust is rewarded with a lot of loyalty, who likes herself enough to like other women.

Thank you
It's taken twelve years, but I am finally free of Wendy. She's out of my system. I wish her well, and hope she hasn't managed to destroy anyone else. Women like her are poor, sad victims of patriarchy and misogyny. I know now that she is to be pitied rather than feared. I know now that it's possible to be a feminist and to dislike women who bully other women. I should have taken her to a tribunal, and didn't have the strength. And wanted out, in the end.

Women who criticise, judge and bully other women are exactly like cancers, our own cells turning on us. If we want equality and freedom, we've got to have the courage to out them.

My daughter and I are running Race for Life on Saturday 9 July. If you would like to support us, please, please do. You can make a donation by following the link.




Sunday, 20 March 2016

Caitlin Moran's next minute

I found Caitlin Moran's heartfelt open letter to her teenage fans moving and upsetting to read.


Caitlin Moran is certainly right to point to a very unpleasant aspect of modern life: the hysteria that surrounds young girls. I think her letter is intended to defuse some of that hysteria, but I would love her to write a letter to me, because I think she should target the source of the hysteria not its object.

She's right that there are teenage girls who hate themselves, and harm and sabotage themselves, because they are trying to find ways to cope with their own overwhelming feelings. They cannot see any other outlet than to hurt themselves. And something is fuelling that.

Yes, this self-loathing exists, I can attest to the fact myself – not in my own girl, I hope, but certainly in my own memories.

And I do love Moran's promise to our girls, that we only ever have to face the next minute. This is wonderful advice, and probably shows that Moran has done a Mindfulness course. Because this message about the moment is the message of the moment. I wish someone had told me I only had to face the next moment back in the 1980s.

It seems to me that we are currently clinging to Mindfulness, because we have lost any sense of Stoicism in our public and private culture. We are trying to re-mind ourselves that, by simply existing in the here and now, in this minute, we are fully able to face the entry to the next minute. This message carries immense power – and a whiff of despair. Although the advice has been around for thousands of years, it is currently being liberally sprinkled on everything that moves, as the only seasoning any of us can think of to combat the intense multiplication of stressors in contemporary life.

Again, I can attest to the fact myself, because I, too, have clambered on that bandwagon. I'm forever telling my daughter and son to breathe. Usually when the only person in the situation who needs to do so is me.

I also appreciate Moran doing that other, very fashionable, thing – basing her thinking on current neuroscientific research. In the absence of a soul, we now have flooding hormones and over-active neurotransmitters. She tells girls about the heightened levels of adrenalin and cortisol, which are what are provoking the panic in their brains: 'That panic and anxiety will lie to you – they are gonzo, malign commentators on the events of your life. Their counsel is wrong. You are as high, wired and badly advised by adrenaline as you would be by cocaine.' She's not wrong – but nor is it the only explanation for why girls internalise anxiety. It's coming at them from somewhere.

When finally, Moran alludes darkly to the reasons why so many young girls seem to turn their anxiety in on themselves: 'Things have been done', I want to know more. But she does not go into those reasons, because it is not the purpose of this particular letter to go into what, exactly, has been done.

What has been done is what has been going on for centuries. Girls of twelve to sixteen are the most beautiful they will ever be, but they are not ready for the desire of others, and their own desires. Not ready, simply because it takes a long time to learn about one's own desires, and young girls are constantly being targeted and thrown off course by the leering glances of middle-aged men, and the predations of the beauty industry. They are constantly fed an ambivalent line about doing their best, when what is meant is 'be perfect'. The 'selfie' culture is a manifestation of what it is like to be twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen… any age of transition when one is desperate for a reflection of what one is, anything that will stabilise the madness. A girl of that age is changing more rapidly and absolutely than at any time since she learnt to walk. It is dizzying, and she has to do it all under a lascivious spotlight. It makes me feel ill. When I was 17, it literally made me sick.

At the Bat Mitzvah party my twelve-year-old girl went to last night, I watched in fascination, pride… and terror, as a group of young girls danced like fluttering frangipani blossom under a twirling discoball in a dazzlingly white disco. They were unutterably, unbearably beautiful. They were girl-women, safe and protected from unsavoury gazes, loving themselves, happy and delighting in themselves.

It was I, and the other mothers, the dark duennas ranged along the wall, in our black faux-fur-trimmed winter coats, who gripped our arms tightly across our chests, and bit our bottom lips as we looked on. We want too much for our daughters. We don't know what we want for them. We are potentially, if not actually, the problem. We are the Motherloaders. As it was done to us, so we feel we cannot help but do unto our girls. Pull your skirt down. Be good. You're beautiful. Try harder.

I want someone to help me not to pass my worries for my glorious girl-child onto that glorious girl-child.

But the only person who can do that is me.

Minute by minute. Breathing when it gets too much, and her growingness overwhelms me. Keeping my own feet glued to the earth, to try to steady myself as I watch her teeter away. Aching as she separates from me, goes towards her own life.

Moran says a beautiful thing when she suggests that girls can be their own mothers: 'Pretend you are your own baby. You would never cut that baby, or starve it, or overfeed it until it cried in pain, or tell it it was worthless. Sometimes, girls have to be mothers to themselves. Your body wants to live – that’s all and everything it was born to do. […] Protect it.'

When my daughter read her piece, however, what stood out for her was, 'You were not born scared and self-loathing and overwhelmed'. That's what she holds onto, as her teeming emotions buck her every which way, and she hunches her shoulders, and feels scared to stand tall.

Perhaps it's a stretch too far for a twelve-year-old to imagine herself as her own baby, when she has never had a baby. My open letter to my daughter reads: 'I promise you that I will help you to be able to deal with worry and anxiety. It does not have to harm you'.