Friday, 9 September 2016

Motherland

Motherland 
(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 take 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. 


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. 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 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 to do. 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 -- 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?