Thursday, 5 May 2016


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:

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'.

Friday, 18 March 2016

How a pair of pink trainers helped me deal with ontology

When I was working for Cambridge, I could not envisage working for myself (although oddly you are like a barrister and you do work largely for yourself). I had a monolithic and binary view of working/not working, being/not being. I existed through my achievements.

As things went wrong and went on, though, I went through a long (l-o-n-g – a positively Proustian) process of change. 

Over time, I have stopped working overtime. I’ve completely revised the way I see myself as a working person. I now think of myself as a Working Mother, and give both terms equal weight, because they have equal weight in my mind and life. 

I don’t apologise any more for existing, being a woman, being a mother, underachieving, trying to balance, and I don't judge myself for failing to be all things to all people.

Stopping justifying myself is the single hardest thing I have ever achieved – far harder than the Phd and two births and relocating to and from Australia, and changing careers at least three times. Those things were bloody painful, but they weren't hard like changing yourself is hard.

The thing that's been my lifeline has turned out to be not literature, as most would have predicted for me, but exercise. Everyone's lifeline is different, and I could also never have predicted that boogeying and running in the mud were what was going to help me achieve homeostasis.

Weirdly it's because I have started running again, after a thirty-year hiatus, and accepted that I can only run slowly at my age, that I am now able to approach the way I do things completely differently. It’s been a revelation to me, trying Park Run.

Another discovery is that it wasn't working for myself that meant the most to me. It was learning that happiness does exist if you give it a chance. Despite all my arguments against it, and all the disasters that are surely still to come in my life, as everyone I know ages, and Trump becomes President of the biggest army in the world... happiness exists. Hope persists.

Having a burst of 'healthy eating' coaching a few years ago gave me a powerful nudge forward. One thing it revealed to me had nothing to do with eating. Or rather, eating was my rather crap solution to a problem I seemed unable to work out any other way.

I did not break problems down into manageable, sequenced parts, and I never visualised achieving a goal.

How on earth I managed to get through school, university and the first half of my life without doing these things is beyond me. But let that pass: I know now (cue sounds of my poor mother grinding her teeth in frustration as she silently screams, 'But I told you that all the time!').

It seems a little prosaic to call it an 'epiphany'. Perhaps an app-iphany would be closer to the mark. I started to use things like... Excel spreadsheets to help me log my writing progress. I sort of released my inner nerd, instead of pretending I didn’t have one. I'm currently in love with

I came to realise that I had hyper-developed my Critical Thinking skills, but that I’d allowed my Problem-Solving skills to wither away. 

I worked out that critical thinking was linked to my creative, analytical, comedic and sexual drive, and to my personal taste in things like art, clothes, films, books, furniture, food etc. But without any problem-solving stuff going on, the critical thinking skills had become monstrous, and were eating me up. The result was that I thought I hated what I loved.

I needed to relearn (if I had ever known) how to work slowly, how to break things into sequences – I once saw how children with autism are helped through patient, persistent Applied Behaviour Analysis at TreeHouse School in Muswell Hill, and it blew my mind. 

I needed consciously to use 'if X, then Y' logic, and binary logic, in my dealings with external reality, not because my critical thinking was wrong per se, but because without any balancing mathematical or logical thinking, it was becoming magical, catastrophising, absolutist, avoidant, hypervigilant. It wasn't 'thought' any longer; it was mindstuff overflowing and leaking into my behaviour, like the chocolate river in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

I now know that Descartes, locked alone in a room, and deciding that Cogito ergo sum, is wrong. 

A Proustian would say I exist in multiple, simultaneous, instantaneous and longitudinal, retrospectively recalled and revised, hopefully forward-projected relational networks across time, and therefore I am. The Proustian would be technically correct, but probably not a busy working mother. 

A Buddhist would say I am. Nice, like it. Difficult to pull off. Trying to get there. Still too embodied. 

These days I like to wear a pair of pink trainers on my journey to work. I take with me a pair of black, high-heeled shoes, which I designed myself, with naughty red velvet slashes down the side, on the 'Shoes of Prey' website. That's another thing to thank my husband for – Christmas generosity. The pink trainers express my grounded, bodily self. They take me there step by step. They are my problem-solvers. The Shoes of Prey express my critical thinking: up high, slightly painful, pretty and exciting, but a little bit dangerous. Together they bring me flow.

I no longer overthink and therefore I am.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

'If Moms were treated like Dads'

My daughter sent me the following link yesterday, and I watched it with growing confusion: see what you think:

'If Moms were treated like Dads' is the title – so, let me think, what was I expecting? A few witty comments about American women taking it easy as men don't do enough around the house; feigned incompetence – suddenly becoming unable to do the washing; never taking responsibility for parenting decisions? A teasing interlude of reverse sexism?

If I'm honest, yes, that's what I was expecting – a Buzzfeed moment I could laugh ruefully at, but privately deconstruct. Or publicly deconstruct, pointing out the basic stereotyping of men and women alike, and bemoaning the paucity of representation of middle class lives etc etc.

Instead what I watched illustrated what I mean by 'Motherload' perfectly.

In the video we watch a teacher tell a mother to ask her husband's permission before their child can enter a gifted reading programme. We see a man put down a woman, calling what she's doing 'being stuck with the weekend babysitting'. We watch a man say to a woman, 'Bet you can't wait to get back to work, eh?' as they watch their children run amok. We see a women tell another woman, who is roughhousing with her children, 'Don't let your girlfriends see you doing that!'. And we watch a pair of men muscle up to a woman they are not used to seeing at the playground (presumably because she's usually at work and has a stay-at-home husband).

What took me by surprise is that (perhaps unintentionally), all of these vignettes can be read in multiple ways. It's hard to see clearly what they illustrate, and where the comedy gold resides.

I think the 'permission-seeking' is intended to moan – I mean mean – that 'mothers have all the power in parenting decisions these days'. But it's only a few decades since seeking your husband's position in all matters was the norm. 'Equality between the sexes' is a very new and fragile thing.

A man belittling a woman's activity, and another woman warning a woman not to be 'unladylike' are straightforwardly sexist, and have little to do with imagining what would happen if a woman were treated as a man is.

The comment about longing to get back to work, because it's easier to be in the office than to parent, is one regularly exchanged between working mothers.

And working mothers find it difficult to gain access to the stay-at-home tribe, as both 'types' are so anxiously segregated under the current ideology of compulsory anxiety about parenting.

This isn't about 'men' and 'women' at all. This is about (1) power relations, (2) shifting roles, (3) the anxiety we are all experiencing trying to pigeonhole the meaning of being a 'woman' or a 'man' and being a 'mother', 'father' or 'parent' in the twenty-first century.

What the Buzzfeed comedy video inadvertently does is show up the massive confusion currently playing itself out in Western, affluent, educated societies about what a woman is and does, or should be and do, once she becomes a mother. The same issues beset fathers, but the spotlight is currently on women, because the jockeying for position between women about what their real role should be is so inflamed and furious at the moment.

It's not that women are 'colonising men's ground' (it wasn't men's in the first place); and it's not that women are trying to 'have it all' (they just want access to the opportunities given to men as of right).

It's that if women no longer want to play the role of unpaid labour in the home, if they want fulfilment, if they nowadays need to work, whether they like it or not, simply because mortgages are so huge, if they expect to marry for love and to have equality in their relationships and public lives, then we don't know what to do with them, and we don't know who is going to change the nappies.

'Motherload' means the confusion over what a woman is for once she has children.