Friday, 16 January 2015

The Language of Discipline

Thank you to Suzy Banks Baum, who very kindly asked if I would write something for her site, Laundry Line Divine.  Here's what I sent her. It's about the problem of combining creativity and discipline.

I've also copied it below for ease of reading:

The Language of Discipline
I have had to learn whole new ways of speaking since becoming a mother. In my childfree life, I wrote about Marcel Proust and his obsession with time passing. For me, as for him, the obsession with time passing amounted to an obsession with self passing — how, as your life goes by, your identity shifts continually. Different parts of who you are come to rigidify or dissolve. What was once frozen with fear expands to airy liberation. Elements of yourself you thought you could never do without become redundant or obstructive and have to be jettisoned, like empty rocket boosters. The characteristics you held closest to your heart ossify and desiccate. For example, how, from uptight teenager, you learn Expansive Liberal Tolerance as a twenty-something graduate, and from there how you become a mother, and how all that learnt tolerance disappears into the maw of discipline. 
I had a longstanding relationship with discipline. I was a very, very disciplined child and teenager — my time management was exceptional. I awoke at 5.30am and revised in bed, I was at the piano by 7, and every day without fail my bag was packed and at the door. No one needed to tell me off. But they still did. My discipline was always fleeing whey-faced before a dark-browed father. 
My excellent time management lasted all the way through university, which was, after all, a bit like school. It only started to crack when I finally had to leave school altogether, and enter the World of Work. Then I learnt about all the ways in which employers and colleagues undermine your self-discipline, through impossible deadlines, boring tasks, power struggles, envy, incompetence, and simple meanness. And I learnt that without the prop of studying for exams, my time management was useless. I turned out to be as lazy as everyone else, when I didn’t want to do something. This discovery threw me so much that I ran back to university, thinking that this was where I would find my likeminded community of non-disciplinarian souls, all engaged in lifelong labours of love. 
Wrong. Once I had to teach others how to manage their time, as a lecturer, my own discipline went even more pear-shaped. It’s not that I didn’t complete tasks to the deadline, but that the way I went about finishing turned into insanity: last-minute scrabbles, tearful up-all-nighters without the benefit of following-day lazing. It scrambled me. I talked the talk of calm practice, day-to-day discipline and creative nurture, but I did not walk the walk. 
At the same time, disciplinarians who were not my father were closing in on me. Bullies, delighting in abusing their positions of power (I could be specific but will refrain), sniffed me out and hounded me for minor misdemeanours. I did not know what to do with myself. 
In the first few months after having my daughter, I lived embraced in the milky syncopation of her heartbeat, entirely looked after by her needs. No need to manage my own time, it was taken care of. No need for discipline, who needs to discipline a baby? I managed to extend this to the whole of her first three years, by moving to Australia, and starting my first novel. I could write while she was at nursery, and also spend several days a week with her. I complained publicly that I never had enough time to write, because I felt it de rigueur to complain, but secretly I was happy, rocked in the rhythm of her days. I did not know what lay ahead. 
Because then… then there were two. A boy. Lover of women, charmer of all, dark-souled, uncontained, pure ego. And discipline came to visit me once again. Time management turned into sticks that beat me incessantly, a relentless roll call of disparate dull claims — feeding, shopping, cleaning, running for the tube, deadlines, running to pick up, doctors’ appointments, activities, suffering the comments of other mothers, nursery staff, school staff — and that discipline found its doppelgänger inside me. When my uppity son did not conform, I disciplined. Not kindly, but brutally. Angrily, forcefully, without finesse. There were no clever tips and techniques inside me which rose to the surface and helped me through. My longing for flow, connection, lovingkindness, to be a gentlewoman, all that was so much mush, it had all been so much learnt theory. The reality was perpetual shouting, nagging, talking back to talking back, argument, misery. 
I wish I could tell you that this new maternal language, which seemed to burst out of me as naturally as tears, itself dissolved into understanding and forgiveness. It has not yet. For me, as yet, the melting point between discipline and creativity has not been found. I try — I seek it through yoga, dance, trying to write, trying to understand what it is like to be a child. I fail, every day. I’m about to fail again. It’s 8.12am, and I have been writing when I should have been getting my child ready to go to school. 
Naughty girl.

To put this piece into some kind of context, Suzy is pulling together a third collection of pieces called 'Out of the Mouths of Babes', an online collection that is attached to The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers.  Frankly, what has troubled me most is what comes out of my mouth since having children. 'Out of the mouths of babes' usually means that children tell the innocent, unfiltered truth.

If that's what I'm doing, then heaven help us all.

I guess the things I say show I am no longer a babe.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Post Christmas Post

Christmas seems to me the most preposterous process of emotional line-drawing and dread. 

'Advent' turns out not to mean anticipating the coming of the Lord — or even Father Christmas. Or rather the true meaning of 'anticipation' is searching nightly through the contents of your soul, memory and wallet for a full month, while trying to hold down a job, and cope with everyone else's unfiltered greed (if they are children) or unmitigated disappointment (if they are adults). 

All through December I feel I am wading through the treacle of my own and everyone else's expectations and anxieties. I am measuring myself up, working out what didn't get done, what I hoped would happen and didn't, combing back over the year in a cloud of sadness for time lost, and by extension, sifting through all the previous years, now gone for ever. We are all working and living a kind of double time, trying to fit in everyone else's activities (aka hopes and dreams), heading like lemmings for a national exodus to the privacy of The Family.

Then follows a short period of slow cooked friction, fuelled by alcohol, chocolate and television, searching for love. Ultimately there is an outburst of some kind, then the mass tramp home, chastened. 

Finally there is the scramble for a New Year's party, in order to wash away the previous four weeks of expiation and worry in one glorious sousing (or there is the sense of rejection and exclusion if no party is forthcoming), and finally we are all spat out, wrung dry, impoverished and having to do our tax returns on the far side. 

From here on in I have decided not to send Christmas cards. They epitomise the process I've just described. First you must choose the right kind of card to express your values (Charity? Children's drawing? Photo of loving family? Multi-pack? Individual i.e. expensive?), then decide whether or not to write a long or a short message (long = boasting about one's exploits and holidays; short = no time or bare remembrance of recipient), then queue in the disintegrating post office to hand over wads of cash to ensure the pieces of card make it. Then bump into the person you have just sent a card to. Or be fated never to see the people you were once so close to, who now live thousands of miles away. The card has to stand in for the whole of that past, together with the intervening years in which you have become unknown to each other. Christmas cards are bound up with that process of atonement, mourning, and denial, which is what Christmas seems to be. 

Instead I will send electronic New Year's Cards. Instant gratification, no need for long screeds, an image selected from the mass of the previous year's doings, a wish for the future, and not a longing for a past that can never come again (and was never what you remember when it was the present). 

I can probably be accused of bad faith — perhaps that advent process is exactly what is needed in order to experience the liberation of the year turning. Ah well, there's always next year. 

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The daily rituals of a creative mother

Daily ritual — absolutely crucial if you want to do any kind of creative work.

The other ingredient? Self-belief.

Here's what I know:

1. There's no such thing as writer's block.

2. Getting up early is the best way to marshal your wakening brain with your deepest energy.

3. Good coffee.

4. No alcohol.

5. No internet (doh).

6. Knowing what task you need to start on.

7. Only attempting one task.

8. Continually feeding your memory of yourself as in love with art. Galleries, books, films. And make notes on what you see.

9. Walk everywhere.

10. Never react to other people's messy excess.

11. Talk about your work with others who actually feed rather than crushing you. But don't talk about how hard it is to write (nothing is more boring either to say or to hear), just about how to solve the technical problem you're grappling with. Writing is both solitary and collaborative — after all, you're doing it to be read, aren't you?

12. Listen. Listen. Listen.

Had I actually observed these rituals, I'd have written and published several more of the books that infest my head.

Onwards and upwards.

Saturday, 15 November 2014


Last Saturday I had the privilege of attending the Batmitzvah ceremony of one of my daughter's schoolfriends.

The candidate was only just twelve, and the ceremony was held in an orthodox synagogue, very much by the book. I was expecting an impenetrable event, something completely foreign to my lapsed Protestant understanding. As I entered the Synagogue with my blonde hair and blue eyes, I felt like an intruder.

Instead I was invited into and witnessed a true rite of passage. The young girl had prepared over many months for this event. For her Mitzvah, she had decided to paint a series of six canvases to represent the six days of Creation, and she spoke eloquently about how each canvas had come about. She had understood early on that, although she had wanted to create something out of nothing, in fact, as a created being herself, she was only capable of creating something out of something — she was not able to create raw materials for her art ex nihilo. Only an ultimate Creator could create something from nothing.

I felt myself palpably relax and a deep sensation of comfort and relief flood through me. Although I don't believe in God, and don't believe in the literal truth of Genesis, one of the hardest edges of writing for me, and for most people, is the fear of having to create something from nothing. We forget, in a secular society, that we are not the fount of all knowledge as individuals. We are always building on, renewing, recreating what has gone before us. We are standing on the shoulders of giants, up on the stilts of our own histories and the history of writing and art that has preceded us. And we shouldn't forget that we are at the top of that history, not crushed under its weight. We are the pencil points.

The ceremony continued, after the girl's brilliant account of Genesis, with wise words from the Rabbi, but also from an old family friend (who looked spookily like the elderly Freud). He stood at the lectern on a podium, she stood down below in the body of the Synagogue, upturned face ready for his words. At first blush it looked like everything I loathe about hierarchical, patriarchal systems: the girl was to receive the wisdom of the male elder, in docile silence, her voice shut down. This would be the beginning of her domestication. And it's true that the Batmitzvah is traditionally linked to the idea of a marriage-ready girl.

Yet nothing could have been further from what actually happened. The older man spoke about her life, welcoming her to her own future, whatever it might be, alluding to possibility, potential, her own blossoming, and the ways she would be supported by her community to achieve, the cyclical nature of life.

True, at one point he told her, "We don't believe in Darwin, we believe in the literal truth of the Torah", which chilled my enthusiasm somewhat. But the girl's own party later served as something of an answer to him: it was themed on Science and Creativity.

I had also recently gone to a First Communion, and in my ignorance had thought that a Batmitzvah was something similar — welcoming a child into the Jewish faith, just as the Communion is intended to enable the child to join the Catholic faith. Absolutely wrong. In the Jewish tradition, the child is always already Jewish, and the Batmitzvah is about opening the door to her future. It's about her signing up to herself, and about her community making a promise to her. Everything about the Batmitzvah refers to commitment — of the community to the young person and back again.

I found myself sad and small by the end of the ceremony. I saw the mother's face, with her four beautiful daughters all now safely through their Batmitzvahs. She was utterly radiant, dancing with her children in the middle of the Synagogue. I crept away.

There is nothing is secular society to initiate a child into the adult world, and into her own future.

When my daughter left primary school and went to secondary, I even missed the one rite of passage that seems to have sprung up in the last few years, like weed to fill the empty space. She didn't get a mobile phone.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Chore Wars II: and another thing....

Professor Jonathan Gershuny of the Centre for Time Use Research in Oxford was making depressing and familiar points on Woman’s Hour this week (‘Chore Wars’). Women have been completely done over in the modern world, he said. Because women cannot expect marriage to last (statistically), they'd better keep earning, plus they can still expect to shoulder the majority of the unpaid work at home. 

This isn't news to me, but it's depressing to hear a Professor say it. I found it a little simplistic: what about how women cop the unpaid work at work as well? All those emotional dynamics, the presenteeism, the bringing in of fattening cakes, and, frankly, the menial paid parts of jobs. 

Be that as it may, Professor Gershuny's argument was that domestic labour has been progressively 'feminised', through labour-saving devices like boilers, dishwashers and hoovers. He argues that men used to lay the fires in the average home. Domestic jobs for the boys have been replaced by machines. Men at home are, in this account, and rather oddly, the Romantic victims of the Industrial Revolution. He also didn’t comment on the class issues involved in domestic labour — in fact it seems to have become taboo to mention class in relation to motherhood or the family. I don’t think upper class men laid their own fires, and even very average families often had a maid. The issue of who does what in the home is at least as much a class as a feminist issue. 

When I was growing up, my older father had already retired. I remember him doing masses around the house, as well as the DIY. My mother did not go out to work. Picture the one-time mechanical engineer mending the toilet flush in his pants. My mother quietly devoted her time to us and to cooking, gardening and weaving. I inherited the double expectation that partners in a marriage share domestic labour, and that mothers are there for their children. I wish I had understood how lucky I was as a child, how impossible it would be to provide the same kind of attention to my own children, and just how bad I was going to feel about this. 

I got my husband to do the Mumsnet Chores Surveyand by and large he was realistic. He only over-estimated his contribution a little — and in fact, at the moment, he is doing the lion's share, because I'm the one working, so we take turns. Domestic drudgery goes in waves and phases for us. Yet when you look at the results of the Mumsnet survey, the way we share just isn't representative of what's going on in the British home. I would gladly relinquish all housework — I really don't care about it — if I thought that I wasn't going to be judged and forced to justify myself about it

I find it impossible not to care (even though I don't care) what people think of my mothering/domestic actions, because the dominant assumptions are so… dominant. It's the lack of alternative models for living that I find truly suffocating. In my own life, my husband and I have abandoned mainstream ways of doing pretty much everything, because we thought a lot of those assumptions were marriage-endingly unfair on me. But we feel in a minority for doing so. 

I still iron his shirts, and love baking (I have won prizes for my cakes!), but I want to do it on my terms. The trouble is that there seems so little room for this at the moment. There's no space in which to iron your man's shirt out of love, or practicality, without being judged a feeble stay-at-home, and no space in which to refuse to iron your man's shirt without being judged a hard-faced cow. But why should this be, when women are supposed to have been liberated from all these stereotypes? The answer, of course, is that they have not liberated themselves or each other. We are afraid to let go of the stereotypes, because we don't know who we would be without them. 

My husband still does the irritating deferral of every domestic decision to me, and I have to train him constantly to think for himself, but he thinks he's just practising 'good communication' (by asking me 'whether or not son needs a packed lunch'). So sweet. I've accepted the idea that I'm the family leader, which has its pros and cons — essentially the family is much happier when I'm in charge of absolutely everything (and so am I). 

BUT. It is also my job to delegate well so that I don't fall over with the stress of it all, and so that my son grows up to pull his weight, and my daughter grows up to know she's entitled to live a balanced life.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Mumsnet: The Chore Wars

Yesterday, Mumsnet asked me to write a guest post for them on their current Chores Survey. You can read the post here, and I've added it for convenience below. Enjoy!

"On Monday I met a friend for lunch. I'd put ‘Luncheon with Janet’ in the calendar, because it made us both laugh to think of ourselves as Ladies who Lunch.

As we were sitting chatting, my husband walked into the cafe, carrying a big bag of food shopping. He looked rather dashing, actually, all six foot three of him; he had on one of his dark work jackets, and those deep chocolate brown eyes were twinkling.

He wanted to know whether I had the car with me, so he could put the shopping in the boot and walk home. As he left the cafe, we flirted with each other, and he pulled an imaginary forelock, Clifford to my Lady Chatterley.

How are we to interpret this silly little anecdote? My heart burst with pride to see my husband in an unaccustomed context and to see him caring for the family, but the transaction still had to take place under the aegis of irony - I'm not really a lady who lunches and he isn't really my butler or my gardener. This was division of labour as stage show.

This week, Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour is exploring 'Chore Wars', while Mumsnet has published the results of their chores survey, which asked 1000 women who work outside the home how they share the chores with their partners.

It's fascinating stuff, if a bit depressing. Take Jonathan Gershuny of the Centre for Time Use Research in Oxford, making the point on Woman's Hour that women have been completely done over in the modern world: because you cannot expect marriage to last (statistically), you'd better keep earning, and you are still going to shoulder the majority of the unpaid work at home. 
There was an expectation that I would do it all, in the home and outside it, and that 'sharing' was, impossibly, both a kind of failure and a kind of privilege. I shouldn't need help, and if I did, I was weak.

Gershuny's findings show that although some tasks like cooking (note: creative, occasionally enjoyable) have become more evenly shared, very few men pull their weight with tasks like laundry (note: mind-numbingly dull). The Mumsnet survey also reflected this: 77% of women who work outside the home are also responsible for the washing.

Of course, the advent of dishwashers and washing machines and hoovers should mean that women’s lives have got easier – but have they? I would argue that the way we use labour-saving devices has itself become laborious because we've made more work for ourselves. Washday is no longer just Monday, but every day - the chore of washing has multiplied, because it is no longer acceptable, in our image-conscious society, to wear two-day old clothing. Keeping your children looking presentable is just one example of the domestic expectations heaped on women – markers, like having a spotless home, that have become, apparently, necessary in order to register on the index of female success.

When I began my family, I had a good understanding of how tiring and intense parenting would be, but nothing prepared me for the domestic scenario that goes along with it: wall to wall female expectation that I would do it all, in the home and outside it, and that ‘sharing’ was, impossibly, both a kind of failure, and a kind of privilege. I shouldn't need help, and if I did, I was weak. I felt as if I had walked out of my own life and into the nineteenth century.

There's a constant sense of guilt and competition, the feeling that if you can't manage this 'thing' – the home, the family, the cooking, the children's needs, your partner's needs – as millions of women have done before you, and continue to do around the world, then you’re a failure.

It's fascinating to me that 66% of the women Mumsnet asked about chores said they didn't want their partner to do more around the house, despite the unequal distribution of responsibilities, either because they’re comfortable with the current balance, or because it suits them to do the chores themselves, or because they believe that their partner would not perform them to the 'requisite standard'. Could it be the case that we know we're getting a rough deal, but that the idea that women are ‘better suited’ than men to domestic drudgery is still so pervasive that we'd rather not upset the status quo, salving ourselves with: ‘they’d do a rubbish job, anyway’?

So, what's the solution? Chores need to get done, after all. After years of trying to do it all, I've learnt that sharing is crucial. I've learnt that chores are in large part self-imposed, turned into an instrument of competition and made much worse by contemporary expectations from schools about ‘parental engagement’. I've also learnt that chores are as demeaning for women as they are for men, and that a bit of hard work doesn't hurt our children either. After all, they're part of the team too."

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Studio Mothers: The Sugar Log

I was absolutely delighted to be asked to write a guest post for a blog I follow, on combining creativity and motherhood.

The blog is called Studio Mothers: enjoy!

The Sugar Log