I went on holiday with you, to write. We had the most glorious week, sitting with computers and books out in the late summer Corfu sunshine, gin at six on the terrace, views of the cerulean Ionian Sea towards Albania, ruminating, me on Motherload, you on the Romantics. Each evening saw us sauntering towards a harbourside restaurant, where you laughed as I ate a lot of Greek Cheese Pie, and calamari that made me sick on the last night. We managed to eat at Gerald Durrell's villa, much to the envy of my children. We returned together, with our small bags, sitting side by side on the flight, quietly reading, occasionally muttering to each other. We parted at the baggage reclaim with a brief hug and kiss. I rolled my weekend bag away from you, did not look back, through customs, and out to the dreary tube back to Bounds Green. At one point, you asked me a question, ministering to me as you were that week, making me tea, making me sit down and keep working, keeping me off Facebook, patiently listening, as my poor, poor husband has been forced to listen for five long years, to my attempts to articulate what I have to say about the state of motherhood. You asked me, "What exactly stops you from writing three hours a day?" And my mouth fell open. I did not know how to answer you. Both my children are at school. One of them takes the bus to school. A helper takes my son to school three times a week, and collects him once. We now, finally, finally, blessed relief, have a cleaner. I have, thus, several wives. What stops me writing? * I get up at 6am, with my daughter. I help her make her breakfast. I unpack the dishwasher – it's my daughter's job, but sometimes the fight isn't worth it – put on a wash, hang up the last wash, empty the recycling if it hasn't been done, make a packed lunch for son. Check email and texts, reply where necessary. Plan the day. Get son up. Force daughter through dressing or showering, send her back to wash hair or do teeth if she has 'forgotten'. Make sure she has bag packed, keys, bus pass, cash, phone. Had already tried to make her get that kit ready the night before, to great sighs and screams. Make sure son has kit/piano book, lunch, school bag, socks, head, as required. Get him to school, or get someone else to get him to school. Get, get, get. If I go to the school, I take a cake (baked the previous day) for the charity cake sale, help set up the stall, then run to an exercise class. I have to do exercise, I go crazy without it. Then I do admin. For the house, for the children, for my own work. I do my own work, teaching and consulting. I plan and cook every meal we eat, down to each ingredient, which I go and buy once a week. Down to the homemade granola, the nutritionally-balanced lunches and dinners. I've been on a healthy eating campaign, and it's a constant fight to stop the kids (and myself) wading into the ocean of sugar that saturates everything sold to us. I barely understand it, am in a constant tizzy of choice, which makes me brutal and dictatorial at home. In the evenings, at dinner, I sit with the children, reminding them (every three minutes) about their table manners, while trying to ask how their day was, sort out any problems, work out what's coming up. I run our finances.
I plan our repairs and our renovations. I make sure the kids do their homework and their music practice (I don't do the work for them or with them – too much a recipe for misery – my husband helps, though). I take Child 2 to several activities per week, around my teaching. Child 1 can get to her own now. I look after Child 1 on the 6-8 teacher training days that the D of E allows schools to organize in the school term (what?). I look after the children during their half terms and their holidays, booking activities and treats to keep them occupied. Never enough. I sort out buying uniform and clothing (not for hubby: he's a grown man). I fight the amount of time my daughter spends on social media, and I actively time how long my son sits on Minecraft. Then I fight him to get the iPad out of his hands. I feed the cats. They don't answer back.
I make pizza dough.
I sew on badges. I repair tears. I iron. I quite like ironing. I book holidays, nights out, trips to the theatre, cinema, excursions of one kind or another, when I'm not completely exhausted. I manage my children's social lives with the help of iCal, one colour for each member of the family. I am a governor at my daughter's secondary school. I sort out bullying incidents. I'm on the end of the phone if son forgets stuff. Or if he falls over and must be collected. Even if there is nothing wrong with him. I very rarely play with either child, which makes them sad, but I do read to child 2, sometimes. It is my greatest pleasure. I go shopping with my daughter, because she loves it. I loathe it, but I know it makes her happy. And that is the house that we built. * I am writing this on a bus, and have finished writing it in a cafe. That's how I get most of my writing done. I make sure I sleep. I take herbal medicine and vitamins to stay bouncy. My life is slowly, slowly coming back, as our children get older and learn how to do more without us. It was like a bomb going off, my choice, our choice to have children. Three hours of writing a day? Perhaps not. But perhaps there's a need for less volunteering, the need to take a deep breath and rely on my several wives, let the money be spent to allow me to write, the need to encourage the children more firmly to do it for themselves. You, my friend, encourage me to be ruthless. It is difficult to be an existential mother in an age of compulsory anxiety and critical judgement, and against one's own feelings (but what ARE the feelings of a mother?). But I assure you I am trying, and I will succeed. Thank you for loving me enough to ask the question. Here's to writing.
Rebecca Solnit has published the most wonderful essay in Harper's Magazine this morning. She, or her editor, have also managed to give it the best title – 'The Mother of all Questions'. On the face of it her essay is a response to all the pigs who've ever hounded her for not having a baby, but it is so much more than that.
In it she comes up with an excellent term for the best way to respond to a closed, negative, spiteful question: to be rabbinical. I'm not sure that I could borrow that word, being so completely unJewish as I am. But I, too, long for a word for that way of being which allows you to respond to spite by gently reflecting it back, opening up its painful, mean little folds, and helping your hound to see a bigger picture.
I'm currently reading Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, a yearning love letter from a dying father to his future adult son. There is that same quality of mercy, and perpetual wonder, that in anyone else's hands would sound naive or sentimental. Reading Robinson is like sinking into a bath of relief – her depiction of humility makes up for the infinitely many times in which one has been humiliated.
Rebecca Solnit has bigger quarry than her hounds, however. She is interrogating the question of happiness. For Solnit, eudaemonics is perhaps misplaced – or rather its reduction to one kind of thing, one kind of life is the true enemy. As she points out, even if one diligently follows the cookie cutter version of the happy modern life, it is perfectly possible to be a mess of unhappiness; lots of people are. Conversely it is astonishingly possible to find happiness by following – truly, not half-heartedly – one's dreams. Perhaps one's dreams more than one's desires. Dreams are always vanishing, whereas we can give all too concrete a form to our desires, only to find them disappointing in their very materiality.
She reminds us that eudaemonics is, or used to be, all about the search for the good life, and the good life used to be about what we could do to give back to the society within which we had grown up, or what we might usefully leave behind.
In writing Motherload, I have been looking at the question of happiness through the looking glass, so to speak. I have been wondering how best to be happy as a mother, and my answer sounds like the opposite of Solnit's – that mothers must fight for their happiness. It sounds as if I'm demanding free spa days, doesn't it? Nothing could be further from the truth. I'm with Solnit.
I am talking about the full spectrum of what 'happiness' means: pleasure, delight, fulfilment, contentment, together with the freedom, time and place to seek them, and the community within which to do so.
I'm also talking about developing the courage to ask, calmly, surely, gravely for these things, in the face of social expectations that you immolate yourself in the service of your children once you become a mother.
Thank you, thank you, Rebecca Solnit, for being rabbinical.
‘Since when had he
been waiting? Since he had made himself free for waiting by losing the desire
for particular things, including the desire for the end of things. Waiting
begins when there is nothing more to wait for, not even the end of waiting.
Waiting is unaware of and destroys that which it awaits. Waiting awaits nothing.’
BLANCHOT, M., L’attente l’oubli, Paris, Gallimard, 1962,
trans by John Gregg as Awaiting Oblivion, pp. 24-5,
Summer is as dreadful as ever – it's not that we're not doing nice things, it's that woven into those things come horrible events like having too many friends with cancer at the moment, two with terminal brain cancers.
This week I have been an adult.
This week I visited my friend who has terminal brain cancer. We wanted to put on a 'play in a day' with her children, mine, and her cousin's, because she and her cousin used to love to do this in their own childhoods. The play eventually ended up as a two-minute iMovie, some kind of insane Arthurian Dance-Off. It was fun, but it was also not at all fun. It is not fun to see children playing, and know that their mother is going to be taken away from them. However much one can dress up the day with costumes, and ice cream, and pasta and iMovie. Yet this is what you do when there are children, because children want to play. They understand what is going on, but they want and need to play. They are full of unquenchable optimism.
The next I tried to go fruit picking, with someone else's child, and the car broke down in the field. I had to be very grown up and call the AA, as opposed to bursting into tears and kicking the car. He duly appeared, trundling across the field, a knight in a white van, and saved me with coolant. It could have been worse.
The next day, after crying my way through Inside Out, there came a call from our neighbour. Her husband, too, has a brain tumour, and has suffered such severe seizures recently that he has lost the power of speech. They needed help getting to hospital for a blood test, because he is falling a lot. The rain poured from a leaden sky, as though smiting me for my previous life of blithe indifference to other people's suffering.
The day after that, I tried to take the family to a local festival, to do a water slide. A Planned Happy Day! Except that… my daughter managed to use up all her dry clothes, and had to be taken home in tears, because she felt judged by others for wearing a swimsuit. Her excruciating embarrassment brought years of changing room unhappiness flooding back to me. Why is puberty so cruel?
The contrast between sorting out the children's bickering, buying food, doing the cooking, picking up pants, shouting about food in the living room, planning and replanning entertainment, and trying to cope with the emotion of seeing other people suffering, is leading to headaches, insomnia and complete despair.
Normal relentlessness in motherhood comes to an end once the little blighters are in bed. In my son's case, practically tethered to the bed. But this kind of relentlessness connects you like a laser beam to all the suffering on earth.
Of course I could 'choose to distance myself' – except that I cannot. These are people I know, they are my friends, we have had fun together, I love them, they have children, they are my age, they could be me, I could be them.
All I can do is offer compassion. But compassion tears you to pieces. Better not to care. But I cannot not care.
I get it in the neck from my own family for not sorting out their, much more minor, problems. Except that they are not altogether minor – daughter having a large tooth extracted, then having a painful fixed brace fitted; son having a removable brace fitted and needing to learn to speak and swallow saliva again; husband working incredibly long hours, salvaging our financial situation after months of difficulty…
So it turns out that caring is a bottomless pit. You cannot save anyone by caring. You are ripped to pieces by doing it. And through it all I hear the critical voices of those who say, 'this isn't about you', 'grow up', 'suck it up', 'get over yourself', 'get it in proportion', 'just get on with it', 'if you can't stand the heat', 'you shouldn't have had kids then', etc. etc.
To me this is Motherload in extremis – where your natural tendency to care about others becomes too painful to bear, because you are helpless to help them. Expected to sort out everyone's problems, unable to do more than put a sticking plaster over them.
I've got to a point where I can't even write about Motherload, because the ethics and politics of care are so entangled. It's not my place to expose others, to seem to cash in on their suffering. To bear my Motherload honourably, I should, perhaps, do so in silence.
But… I tell my daughter not to be self-conscious, because everyone else is too busy worrying about how they look themselves to judge her. I tell her to be proud of herself. Yet here I am, worrying about being judged for writing about how life feels at the moment.
I will write. Because these experiences are not mine at all. They are other people's suffering witnessed. It is my role to bear witness, to scream at the heavens about the injustice of it all. Life itself is so grotesquely, so unbearably unfair, but it is the task of the adult to bear it, to allow that unfairness to stream through the body in waves and particles, to be aged and denatured by it, and still to hold fast to what is good, beautiful and true.
After I had written the above, I found out that my friend, Nicole Smith, died this morning from brain cancer. Grace, who is nearly nine, Alex, who is eight, and her husband, Rod, have to go on without her.
Nicole was a wise, witty and formidable woman, whose courage during her illness was humbling and inspiring. I always had a good time with her. She was the real thing, feisty, hardworking, and funny. She had complete integrity, and a great bullshit detector. She fought for reason, right and justice all her life. She was a force for good. She never gave up, and she found true joy in life. I'm going to miss her.
I sat down with Jon Day, one-time cycle courier, now English literature lecturer, and had a very enjoyable discussion about cycling and his wonderful essay on it, Cyclogeography (published by the rather fabulous Notting Hill Editions).
What I really loved about Jon's views on cycling was that he thought the British attitude to the bicycle was po-faced, while the French have a completely irreverent, subversive and inherently revolutionary take on le cyclisme.
You can read the interview here – and take a look at Shiny New Books, which is all about what's hot in literature this summer.