Friday, 3 December 2010

The shifting boundary between public and private

The difficult question of what it is safe or appropriate to reveal about one's inner life maps directly onto what it is safe or appropriate to blurt out on a blog or Facebook, where an act of writing might carry you away, and your false sense of anonymity might fool you into thinking that there are no consequences to what you say.

This leads to a striptease of revelations, in which it is ever possible to shift the position of the truth back behind one more veil of irony, lying, exaggeration, generalization or minimization. Truth is often only the truth if it hits its mark, which is why we spend so much time complaining to others about what we really ought to be saying to our loved ones or employers.

The status of confession and truth-telling, the revelation of the self, in social media, is an extraordinarily fluid thing. Much of the time, the apparent greater disclosure we go in for by using the first person to tweet, blog, or post is in fact another kind of conformity: the Bridget Jones variety of self-denigration in the double service both of comedy and the search for sympathy. There are rules to what it is permissible to say about one's self in the blogosphere. Too much self-talk costs readers. Too little revelation, and the world moves on.

It is as though self-revelation were a game of chicken, in which we, as social selves, dare each other to transgress the ever-shifting boundaries of what is deemed appropriate. But the revelation can only have its effect if there ARE boundaries around what is permissible.

Who sets these boundaries? We seem to do it collectively, but there is also an argument to say that they are modelled for us by social leaders, how MPs speak to us and each other, how we are met by agencies of the state, such as teachers, doctors, lawyers, burocrats -- all those who administrate our passage from birth to death.

Where, then is the private self located, and what status can it have? This is a question that plagues me, particularly since having children. There seems to be no space immune from the tweezers of propriety. It is as though, in having children, one is required to evacuate one's self, and replace that set of contradictions and conflicts with a universal script about sharing, playing nicely, working hard, speaking without swearing, and doing as one is told.

How am I to tell my children, who display their inner lives with relish and express their fury and frustration without genuine fear of loss (of love, of status, of existence), that they must learn, as all of us have to, to conceal passions that will cause direct conflict, to pretend not to feel what they do, to bargain with their sense of outrage so as to be able to attend school, be invited to parties, practice the violin, and eventually Succeed In Life? The price seems very high: how are we to remember who we are if we must parlay with our passions, and dissemble them into acceptability?

How can I convey to them that one's inner life never diminishes, and in many ways grows stronger and more urgent as time passes, while also helping them not to panic about this?

This begs the question of whether we remain our original selves all our lives, or whether the adult I now am really is completely different from the child I once was.

What is a self? What on earth is it?

Sunday, 21 November 2010


Why Love Matters (Susan Gerhardt, Routledge, 2004) was first published when my daughter was about one year old. I heard about it, but could not bring myself to read it. It sounded like the kind of argument I was already struggling so hard with that it could only cause pain -- it sounded as though it would tell me that my place was in the home with my baby, and that only mothers could provide the kind of affection and attention that their babies need to thrive.

When I finally sat down with it, because of the reading list set by a School of Life course on the family, I could not put it down.

Yes, it does in large part advocate a social organization in which it is possible for caregivers to stay at home with their babies, solely focused on their needs, delights, demands and neuro-cognitive development. And that's fine, because it's pretty much the conclusion I came to during my own early-years development experience. Gerhardt would love to live in a society without conflict, and thinks we fight the wrong battles, without noticing what is under our noses. I agreed with everything she said.

I'm still very glad I didn't read it while my children were under three: I would have been even more crippled and blighted by guilt than I already was.

What amazed me in her account of early development was that psychoanalysis has moved on so very far from when I studied it via various university courses and after. In the late 1980s, there simply was so little research on cognitive and early years development carried out with real babies -- all we had to go on was the ever-fraught reconstruction of infancy from the vantage point of the already-damaged adult looking back. The debates could only ever be about the possibility of falsifying memories; and the validity or treachery of models of the mind based on hypothesis, as Freud's had to be. We were always arguing about the wrong thing. Actual children didn't come into the picture. Psychoanalysis was a theory of mind that had resolutely left childhood behind.

Gradually, however, the grandchildren of psychoanalysis have had their own children, and have also had the wealth, education and leisure, in certain parts of the world, to start to observe how the infant brain develops in real time. Feminism has also enabled scientists to take the experience of the pre-linguistic life, and the dynamic between caregiver and infant, seriously as a stage of development. What happens between 0 and 3 now has an acknowledged content, rather than being something inadmissible that takes place in a relegated zone known as the nursery and the home. As women have acquired status in public life, they have been able to speak about what they observe, and this experience can now be called developmental psychology rather than witchcraft or gossip.

Gerhardt's book begins with a description of brain development which I found astonishing. Freud simply had no tools with which to look into the mind. He had language and dreams, the slips of the tongue that might reveal fissures in rational thought, covering up troubling unconscious urges. He codified these into erotic and thanatic drives, reducing to a binary what we experience as irreconcilably multiple and ever-changing. For Freud the conversation was only ever about sex and death. For contemporary psychoanalysts, talk of sex and death might reveal brain development.

For Gerhardt, the crucial point is cortisol. She argues that stress, and the production of cortisol, is really what inhibits or enables the development of what she terms the 'social brain'. She argues that the orbitofrontal and prefrontal cortices do not develop optimally if too much cortisol is produced for too long in early infancy (I'm paraphrasing horribly, but bear with me).

She is saying that the infant brain is premature, and that it only moves into the final stages of growth after birth, and because of the stimulation of affection from the caregiver. But stress -- the stress of separation, and the stress of a depressed mother -- will flood the infant brain with cortisol, and if this happens too often and for too long, the emotional homeostatic function will set at too high or, paradoxically, too low a point. The upshot will be that the baby will continue to be unable to regulate her own emotions. She will either be too fearful, or too turned off, to develop properly.

For Gerhardt balance is everything. She focuses on how the social brain is geared towards enabling a child to regulate emotion -- emotion which is made up of complex reactions to stimuli, neurochemical and hormonal. The pre-linguistic infant cannot accomplish this regulation alone, and must have an adult caregiver to reassure her, respond to her, and encourage her, if her brain is to be able to dispose of excess hormonal flooding at moments of stress.

I was so grateful to Gerhardt for bringing together neuroscience and psychoanalysis into one place -- for taking both seriously, and for taking seriously the impact of post-natal depression on women and children. But the book still left me sad -- the social vision she is arguing for, where we make decisions based on wellbeing rather than economic imperatives, is so far away. Do we have a generation of happy, well-educated mothers who accomplish their career needs, and then stop to devote themselves to delightful relationships with gorgeous babies in supportive contexts? No, we have lowered joint incomes and housing inflation beyond the wildest imaginations of our parents, forcing men and women to work ridiculous hours, and then justify the stress this causes in the name of 'looking after their families'.

We clunk along missing the whole point of simply being with our children. And then we blame them for the characters they develop.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Getting started

So, in November, I have signed up to the 'write a novel in a month' website ( This means I am aiming to write 50,000 words of my book on motherhood.

I have already written reams and reams of words on motherhood, and done a lot of interview-based research. I get up every day at 6am (ok, sometimes I don't make it, but a lot of the time I get up). But I feel terrified, and unable to progress.

During the day I go to work, write all day, in a very different style, and execute tasks. My checklists have become clean and ordered, they are accomplished checklists.

In the evening, my time with the children has become contained and neat: a bedtime story and we're done. Occasionally, alone in the dark morning, I glimpse a future in which my battery-farmed children will emerge, pale-skinned, into the adult world, devoid of personal interests, utterly narrowminded, unable to cross a road by themselves, and in debt for the rest of their lives because I couldn't earn enough money to send them to university. This is all grist to the motherhood book, but doesn't help me solve the moral problem of what to do when my daaughter gets up at 6.10am, and comes downstairs wanting to spend time with me, at the exact moment that I am trying to steal a march on the day and write.

It's clear to me that my writing problem is twofold:

  1. I am terrified of accomplishing a book, given the struggle of completing one ten years ago. I am terrified to become that selfish again.
  2. I have already written so much that my thinking has both clarified and become muddied by excess. It's easier to give up. I am closer to finishing than to starting, and it's starting that carries all the heady excitement. The reality is that I am in the slog straight, those swimming lanes where you just go up and down, eating away at what has to be done before you hit your goal.
  3. Writing at this point is somewhat mechanical -- or rather the insights that do emerge are completely unpredictable, and available only because one is close to the material. I am terrified of becoming both immersed in my material, but simultaneously more detached from it. I am, again, terrified of finishing.
So actually my twofold problem, that became threefold in the writing of it, is still only singular: I am terrified, not of starting, but of finishing, losing all the thought, seeing it distilled into one kind of thing, a thing that can be judged and found wanting.

What can I learn from all of this?


  • It's not fair.
  • Life's not fair.
  • I ain't dead yet. Get on with it.
  • I am terrified of finishing writing, big or small.
  • I am inflexible once I have finished something, and find it even harder to go back and undo it.
  • This inflexibility, this desire to kill things, is also part of why I am terrified to finish my book.
  • Openness is both pleasurable and overwhelming: being halfway through a subject is at once glorious, but also bog-like.
  • Criticism is far harder to take when it is externally-imposed, and when its grounds are relative rather than absolute.
  • I just have to get on with it. Writing still has to take place in real time.

Friday, 1 October 2010

He said... and then she said.... and then I said

Last night I had an argument.

Among many other things, my husband and I discussed what we each wanted in our lives that we don't already have.

I said repeatedly that I had what I wanted, and that the happiness of the children came first. He accused me of being dishonest about my real needs and wants, which were to keep writing and publish. He said that he thought I would be a better mother if I were a happier mother, satisfying more of my career aims. I pointed out that I would be doing this, were it not necessary to bring in an income. This meant failing my ideals on two counts: not being there for the children, and not being there to write. Three counts: I really hate it when the house gets messy.

I explained that this was a conflict which I had to live with, but maintained that I care more about the children's development and happiness than my own ambition.

He said that if all there was to look forward to was living with one's conflicts, then what was the point of trying to resolve them — effectively we just live a lie.

Now, the fact that my husband is descended from the line of Kierkegaard shouldn't necessarily influence debate here, but I was struck by the either/or nature of his logic. He found it impossible to accept that I was describing a world of multiple choices, in which one, in effect, has no alternative but to pursue multiple aims simultaneously, dealing with the emotional conflicts that this produces.

When we have arguments I think the following happens. I dislike uncertainty, and will go out of my way to avoid it: planning, framing, drawing lines under, clarifying, hunting, deciding, judging. In fact many of these activities are part of writing, albeit the bit that happens at the end, the editing.

But I know that this is also the kiss of death to spontaneity, risk-taking — and creativity. I also know that even in my quest for certainty, I myself don't think in straightforward ways — I constantly hold opposing views in my head and battle them out; I'm constantly drawn to different desires that can't marry up. This bubbles up until I am like the angry fascist, projecting my inner fears out onto others, the house, the children, my husband. In the service of writing, it is the drive that makes me finish something I start.

So I struggle with my own need for order, certainty, and endings. My husband, on the other hand, is more confident about taking risks in the service of dreams and ambitions. This drive makes him blind to the complex consequences of the risk-taking. He doesn't see the detail, so he isn't held back by it. He thinks "we'll cross that bridge when we get there". I am already straddling three bridges and worrying about the fourth.

Paradoxically, his risk-taking attitude also blinds him to multiplicity, the sense that life functions in several dimensions at once, especially in a family, and it denies him the ability to live with that. His drive actually makes his view of life a series of either/or, linear decisions. Yet he is a more creative thinker than I am — or perhaps more singleminded in his protection of his creative thinking, where I allow myself to be distracted.

So we are in apparently opposite camps, he with his risk-taking drive serving one kind of creativity, but not enabling creative living; me with my drive for order and certainty, which runs the risk of crushing my capacity to live creatively in multiple dimensions. This makes us compatible, and it also makes us fight.

We are both rehearsing our fears about the future: he, that we will sink into complacent, dull, middle class routines, me, that we will put the financial future of our family at risk with his uncertain career dreams. Each of our basic attitudes, the ones that need to be dusted off and challenged from time to time, are threatened by the other's. But we also need the other's basic attitude to jog us out of our comfort zones. Husband needs the details, I need the dream.

So we have arguments. Over the years, we have developed a list of items which habitually come up, and form a narrative of the decisions we have made together which have provoked our greatest fears, like a zip. The zip goes up.... we are arguing about money, the future, pensions, schools, happiness, jobs, ambitions. The zip comes down.... we are able to talk without heat about the very same subjects.

I feel that we are like babes in a wood. We know that we must cleave together in the face of life's storms, and most of the time we do. But we both also reject this from time to time, perhaps because we made our own way in life, seeking singular aims, until we met. We both made families out of our friends. I have been more than reluctant to accept that marriage is somehow a substitute for friendship. Over time I have come to appreciate this, slowly and painfully. My life has, as my husband fears, shrunk to a narrow, routinized round of duties and obligations, which of necessity excludes the engaged polyphony of my former life. There are pleasures within that tightly-bounded life, but they shift from day to day. They are labile, volatile things: the ephemera of mood and a dance of needs.

My husband and I make our baby steps forward, full of uncertainty about the future, conflicted about the present, where it is so hard to remain happily, and troubled by the past, its shadows, its ferocious models, its edicts.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Back to work

Tomorrow I start a new life. I am returning to full time work. How am I feeling about it, I ask myself?

The answer comes back: tranquil.

For the first time in my life, I have taken a step towards making a separation between life and work. Life will take place outside work. Life will be where my deepest ambitions are, where I keep the repository of my emotions, where my children and husband are. Work will be where I am driven, assertive, pro-active, determined, quick-witted, efficient, ruthless, and analytical. Work gets all that. I get a lunch break, to cycle into central London, and to be a working mother.

Life gets the best of the rest. Life gets loving mummy (no stress because she cycled it out on the way home); life gets cooking, and reading, and gardening, and writing a blinding best-seller. And children's clothes, and ironing, and deciding which of my many travel, holiday, house extension projects and gadget purchases I will make in the next decade.

For many years I viewed compartmentalizing as the enemy of creativity. To create meant internal fission, a fluid interconnectivity, a blending of self with the world to find a new emergent thing. Compartmentalizing meant IKEA cupboards, filing cabinets, lists, odd social habits, poor emotional intelligence, the male brain, and nerds.

This year I am releasing my inner nerd. I like it. I kept a desk at school neater than a display in the White Company. I revised using coloured highlighters. They dissolved the blue Quink ink in my Parker fountain pen, with its left-handed italic nib, that made my teachers ask whether I was having sight problems. I went to every lesson in my timetable, and did the same at university, although I pretended so hard I didn't that I even fooled myself. My inner nerd made sure I rose at 5.30am as a child to do extra schoolwork in bed, then practiced the piano as though I actually liked playing it, then made my own lunch, and had my bag packed in the hall on time every single day, including adolescence.

For a long time, I confined my clearly delusional, and deeply uncool, inner nerd to the recesses of my psyche. Which is why it took me so much longer than it should have done to write my phd. The protesting nerd who squeaked for filed notes, and set times in the library, had to do constant battle with the caffeine-addled, frenzied wannado, who needed to be out there partying, acting, engaging in deep conversation, chain-smoking (none of my friends could ever believe I was a smoker), and involved in the cultural life of whichever city I was supposed to be studying in that year.

In 2010, after a final year at home with my pre-school little boy, in which I worked much less than usual, and learned how to grow tomatoes and do mambos, I have decided that Inner Nerd may actually be what will save my bacon. It is perhaps possible to divide my time: "she currently divides her time between central London and the suburbs".... and become more rather than less writerly.

The proof will be in the unmade puddings of the year to come: whether I really have the mettle to cycle ten miles a day; whether I really can be Gracious Mamma after 7.75 hours at a desk; whether the children really can adapt to the home cooking of my gorgeous Italian nanny with her Masters degree in mechanical engineering (I kid you not: I hired her on the spot); whether my husband really can realize his own dreams around the anxiety of the mortgage and the recession.

Yesterday we rounded off a rather wonderful year and a bit with a Naming Day, to celebrate our son's life, and send him off to school. Difficult when one is not religious, but we gathered together friends and family, and forced them to read and sing to our son, then decorated fairy cakes, and set off wishing balloons, many of which landed in our neighbours' gardens.

It was fantastic, I burst with pride at how full and complete life can seem from the vantage point of forty-two years, a husband, two young children, a little house, and a tiny garden. Just over a year ago, those same items seemed tarnished and rusty, arduous, and ennervating. Yesterday, and for quite some time before that, I found my heart aching with happiness. If it is all to be taken from me, then I have had this.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Prams in the hallway of fame

What a fantastic article. I have nothing to add, except why don't WOMEN write articles like this? Could it be that they are holding the baby?

Sunday, 1 August 2010

To Have Or Not To Have

For any mother reading this, of course the answer to the question 'To have or not to have' children is that it is now a fait accompli, enjoy and/or get on with it.

But I was fascinated to be sent this link on the 'Childfree Debate' by a friend the other day. I haven't even heard the Women's Hour debates yet; simply reading the comments was enthralling. (an aside: they were far more considered and polite comments than I have seen on the topic of mothers and children in the press: I wonder what made the difference?)

The gist is that a woman's decision about whether to have or not to have children is all too often seen as public property. In the main it is women who are asked whether or not they want to have children, are pregnant yet, told they must have children, or told they are unwomanly if they do not yet, cannot, or choose not to.

As more than one commentator pointed out, however, the converse is also true: the second a woman is pregnant, she and her burgeoning body are also up for grabs, sometimes literally, and by strangers. Apparently this is society's idea of welcoming women into the fold.

Essentially I see this set of intrusive, judgemental questions as on a continuum with all the other intrusive and belittling questions that are asked of women as they make their impeded way through life, from girlhood onwards. Men's bodies are whole and complete, needing no questioning, only perfecting. Women's bodies are seemingly riddled with inconvenient and questionable apertures, which cause anxiety unless they are put to social use.

What has changed of course is that women can now choose whether to have children or not. So now the question marks over women's labour have shifted ground to a contested borderline between the labour that earns women money and status, and the labour that earns women exactly the opposite. And lo and behold: women are now expected to do BOTH, and fit one inside the other. Result.

My fears about what would happen to my career and status if I had children were borne out in splendidly predictable ways. I was made to choose absolutely between family and career by a Head of Department who shall remain adjectiveless. I have swum on the choppy seas of exhaustion, career change, loss of status, inflexible employer family-friendly policies, extortionate childcare costs, inefficient State aid mechanisms, and eventually just conformed [lowpaid woman who has compromised her career for her children, who now has a job rather than a career]. But I seethe, how I seethe.

Children don't belong to their parents, they belong to themselves and the future. Mothers don't raise children on their own, it takes, if not a village, then quite a few other people, including fathers, grandparents, teachers, ladies on buses, men in newsagents, teenagers who pick up toddlers who have fallen over, and park keepers who retrieve little ones who have strayed. We are not monads. As one aunt pointed out, children are a joy if you can give them back — but aunts don't know what joy they give when they share the load, however momentarily.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Singled Out

I've just finished two books that in equal and opposite ways have left their mark. One is Singled Out, by Virginia Nicholson, the other Can Any Mother Help Me? They are both social histories, aimed at exposing the state of marriage and womanhood in the first half of the twentieth century (now ripe for memorialization).

Both books take unimpeachably admirable subjects as their themes: Singled Out looks at the 'Surplus Women', the some two million women left behind when all the young men died in France and Belgium in the First World War. Can Any Mother Help Me? looks at what is known as a 'correspondence magazine', a pre-email round robin between invited members, in which each adds articles dealing with subjects close to their hearts (children, husbands, work, illness, loss and so forth).

From the outset then, we are prepared for a great deal of Fortitude, Dignified Suffering, and Achievement Despite (a) Housework, (b) Lack Of Housework. I did enjoy both books, and am glad both exist. And I understand that in treating women's social history, it is inevitable that the analysis is going to circulate around the dilemma 'To Marry or Not to Marry'.

However by the end of both books, I came away in a fuzz of despair at my own sex. Why is it that we are still completely bound to the idea that a woman's life is made or broken by her marriageability and fertility? It could be argued that these two histories examine a time in which marriage was imperative in order to safeguard honour, children, and an old age pension for a woman without many rights of her own. But what amazes and depresses me is that these attitudes have essentially persisted, so that the single and/or childless women I know now talk to me about their anguish not at not having children or a man, but at being constantly subtly victimized, usually by other women, for not having them.

There seems to be the most incredible double standard that persists despite education, contraception, and access to all professions. Now, for all that many people in the West cohabit, or make choices about the extent or existence of families, there is an amazing orthodoxy about heterosexual conformity in general. The apparently innocent question, "And do you have children?", so often addressed to women over a certain age at parties, is a loaded and competitive question. It is an attempt by the questioner to pigeonhole a woman as either out of the running, compromised by her own fertility, or a threat, because independent, and therefore free to achieve (but vulnerable on this one flank). And it is a question asked by women of women, an invisible attack mounted to shape the world according to a particular orthodoxy. Women who don't comply risk expulsion, not by men, but by other women.

I wonder how many women now have children because they are afraid not to?

Monday, 12 July 2010

Parents Hate Parenting

Check this out. An article by a New Yorker, analysing the analysis which routinely turns up the idea that parenting makes people less rather than more happy.

The article trawls through a number of American studies by psychologists and social economists, and paints a saddening picture of millions of households condemned to misery by their foolish desire to have children.

Along the way Scandinavia is mournfully mentioned and tossed aside. Scandinavia is in danger of turning into Paradise in the popular imagination, haven of all things to all people — proper welfare, good schools, happy parents and every child looking like Pippi Long Stocking, as the population dance till midnight in the Arctic summer. When one actually talks to people who come from Scandinavia, apparently it's not as marvellous as the rest of the world thinks. They have arguments too, and high taxes, and furious arguments about the concept of the 'Free School'.

But essentially Scandinavia represents an unattainable reality that Americans put forward as the impossible alternative to what they have created for themselves. All the focus in US research is on the moment-to-moment happiness of the individual, and they are surprised when the results come back negative.

Yet one only has to flick through most European philosophy, from the Greeks to Nietzsche, to realize that the happiness debate, and whether one is an individual or part of a collective, has been raging over here for a good 2400 years. It's a debate that has influenced why democracy has evolved in the way it has, and why the idea of the welfare state could eventually be bodied forth (all right, it took a couple of devastating wars to really motivate the British, but still).

Children, like all mammalian organisms, are temporally-embodied, forward-flung creatures. They have no way to go but forward, onwards and upwards. The fact that adults experience them as on fast forward is simply a result of entropy. Our systems are slowing, theirs are not yet slowing. We exist along a temporal continuum towards our own mortality. That's just the way it is. The fact that other parts of our brains have developed to experience and remember pleasure and pain (and let's not forget we don't do this recall all that accurately) is a sideshow in the dynamics of bodily disintegration that is really going on.

Parenting takes place as a minute speck of atomic jiggling within this cosmic flux. But if we turn the telescope around and direct it at our lives, our microscopic concerns, and the microdramas of our lives with growing children, are magnified to fill the field of vision entirely.

Am I saying that we have all lost proportion? Yes, I think so, both when it comes to raising children, but more broadly in the way that we believe that happiness is an entitlement. Of course I'm not arguing that we should all be destined for depression and despair, and that our natural condition is pessimism. I'm not Beckett. Or Schopenhauer. But we do come at the end of a long tradition of deferred gratification, which has turned in on itself on since 1945.

In part this inward turn and re-evaluation of the nature of happiness has been necessary, because some citizens were actively being excluded even from deferred gratification, such as women under patriarchy, or about 50% of the population of most countries.

Deferred gratification, however, once you've ironed social inequality out of your reckoning, has a surprising amount going for it. The wine tastes sweeter after a hard day's work than after four lattes.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

What’s it all about

Recently one of my contemporaries from Robinson College days became the Deputy Prime Minister. That's just about how I look at the world these days, seething with rancid bitterness as contemporaries sail past me, and I am left tied to the sink... by my own choices. Here's the thought process that regularly assails me:

  1. I was the one who wanted to write.
  2. I was the one who wanted to have babies.
  3. I was the one who wanted to get out of a monolithic gerontocracy, geared only to reproducing the Establishment, through the promotion of an orthodoxy (I was an academic).
  4. Well, I have made my bed, had my babies in it, and there I must lie, until the little one says roll over, and my determination to Have A Career somehow carries me through these years of early childhood and out into a glorious future of saying "just a minute, darling", and "mmm, yes, sorry, what was that? GCSEs?", as I pen brilliance, and tour the world basking in my own glory.
  5. My choices, my responsibility, my failings.
  7. Not really, no, you're lucky to have even what you have, and don't you forget it.
  8. I like my garden.
  9. Oh god, it's nearly 3.30, have to race to the school (using the car) to collect son.

Each year I have taken stock and wondered whether this year, this year, finally, will be the one where I work out how to have it all, be with my children while simultaneously absent from them, what the deeper meaning of housework really is, whether feminism has actually betrayed me or whether I'm ultimately its (spiritual) winner...

My eldest is now 7. And it ain't that I ain't worked. I most certainly have: tried it all ways, going back to the original profession; living and working as a freelancer on the other side of the world; making a fundamental career change; with all the attendant childcare mashups needed to facilitate this.

I came out the other side wrung out, just as poor as when I went into it, with ever so slightly troubled children, and totally depressed. My year and a half since then at home, getting back into the writing rhythm, doing a little consulting, acting as a school governor… well, it's all been wonderful really. I can see a future that I want, a freelance, portfolio future, running my own business from home, and being there for all the concerts, plays and parents' evenings. It perhaps won't make me famous, or cement my reputation as an earth-shatteringly brilliant social critic (or will it?), but I'm never going to stop trying, and at least I finally have a platform from which to do it. I am living my own dream... the only thing I have needed more of than I ever expected is time.

I spent a great many years so anxious about time that I could hardly sit still. How on earth this led me to a doctorate on A la recherche du temps perdu, I'll never know. My temporal accountancy left no room for food shopping, exercise, or anything apart from a frenetic social life, and incredibly hard work. Having children has taught me to live at an organic pace -- I literally cannot go faster than my children, entwined with their development as I now am.

The gnawing frustration I have felt at the difference in pace between my head and my heart has caused me endless misery. And I haven't reconciled the two yet. I still want more. I feel like a horse wearing a tight bridle, reined in. And I'm not sure what can be done about it, other than to try to defuse, dance out, get rid of those poisonous feelings that aren't going to help me achieve what I want. It makes it hard to make sense of what went before children— achievement without happiness, a sense of being doomed to succeed — because now success means my children's success. But I'm more willing than I've ever been to see the experiment through.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Boho v Bourgeois

I had a most compelling conversation the other night with a close girlfriend. A term swam into the discussion that I haven't heard used in years: Bohemian. It cristallized a thought that has been bubbling away at the back of my mind for the past few years: that it has become impossible to raise a family in a creative, bohemian, or eccentric way. There seems to be no alternative, or middle ground, between hyper-commercialized, preternaturally childcentric helicopter parenting, or fundamental neglect amounting to child abuse. I think one of the (many) reasons why I question parenting at the moment is that it is so suffocatingly dull, not because children are dull, but because what's expected of mothers is.

I was in the school playground giving my children their daily snack of nuts the other day, and another mother, usually very friendly, barked at me: "Nuts? Did I hear the word nuts? Don't you know that you are not allowed to bring nuts onto school premises?" I had to admit that I didn't, and had been serving my children nuts pretty much every day for the past year at the school, and for years before that in another school. She snapped, "I'm sorry, but my daughter has a terrible anaphylactic reaction", and then stormed off.

I remember feeling bewildered at being spoken to in this way, in an everyday setting; ashamed and guilty, as if I had broken a law; and at the same time furiously angry: did this mother really think that I set out to transgress rules, and flout common decency? Did she really think I was out to attack her children? I simply hadn't known.

Of course I'd endured all the anxiety about nuts when my children were under one, then under three, but once the all clear had sounded, I used them as a fantastic alternative to crisps, cheese strings, or any of the other processed rubbish most children seem to eat when they leave school.

And there we are: straight back into Mummy War territory. This time not over working or staying-at-home, but within the stay at home category: the Food Wars (apparently working mothers are exempt from this war, being already flighty enough to work). Neither I nor the nuts-mother was right. Yet neither of us was wrong either.

The next day I ran after her to say that I realized she must have had a terrible experience with her daughter, and that I was sorry not to have known the rules. She was immediately apologetic for what she called her "grumpiness", and the incident was closed, honour salvaged. But I cannot recall my own mother enduring this kind of incident. Perhaps I was simply blind and deaf. And no one spoke to me in this way when I was working. What on earth is going on?

The nuts-debate is just the most protuberant part of the iceberg that is conformity when it comes to raising children now. There isn't a range of options, there is a compulsory orthdoxy of anxiety. If you look remotely critical, or questioning of this absurd status quo, which has children marking homework projects essentially carried out by parents (I wonder what I got for the rather pathetic scraps of paper my daughter produced and wandered into class with?), if you dare to suggest that there might be another way, or that children might need to be supported to become independent, for instance by walking across the school playground to their classrooms, having been waved off at the gate by a loving parent… then you are destined for exclusion. The identification of the Alpha mummy is easy: they are the mums dressed the same, buzzing in the same way around their children of a morning, dabbing on sun cream, making sure Genevieve has her violin. Obviously I'm one of them.

But going back to my starting point, ie. my conversation with likeminded mother the other evening, our joint sadness about this suffocating orthodoxy really comes from the sense that it is not possible as a mother, or as a mother now, to embrace eccentricity or bohemianism, and live it authentically.

In part this is because capitalism appropriates versions of bohemianism, since casualness is cool, and cool sells. Eventually cool goes mainstream, and new cool has to move on.

In part it is because the safeguarding agenda has come along in the wake of the terrible Baby P case, to tar us all with pre-emptive suspicion and fear.

In part it is because the sheer mechanics of the early life of an infant, with its regular feeding times, the need for routine, the repetitiousness, and the anxiety of simply keeping such a frail being alive, all collude to enforce conformity and blandness as the ideal framework for family life.

I should know, I tried so hard to live freely and creatively. But all that happened was a crushing mortgage, the end of my pre-children career, excessive stress brought about by lack of work/life balance, domestic disorganization, and ultimately an almost delirious capitulation to the sense rather than the sensibility of family life. I haven't quite been Bodenized, but that's merely because I can't afford the clothes. In every other respect, my dreams have become those of 99% of the middle classes: a beach shack at Southwold, brunches with successful fellow travellers, an expensive holiday every few months, and private education.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

A lesson in parenting

I recently went to the Continent, to the Netherlands, to be precise. My Dutch nephew was getting married. I ended up having to go sans husband, whose passport is currently with the Home Office awaiting a stamp of indefinite leave to remain in the UK (he's Australian). Charmingly, they have had it since the end of January, and have just informed him airily that it might take 'up to six months' to lift a wrist and put a stamp in the document. Meanwhile, husband carries on working day in, day out for a British organization, and paying UK tax.

This is less of a digression than it seems. What I encountered while acting the single mother in the land of Spinoza, Grotius, tolerance and liberalism reminded me that parenting is a cultural, not a natural, phenomenon all over again. As if I needed reminding.

My two children are, by British lights, fairly well-behaved, heard more than seen upon occasion, but not thugs. Not to my knowledge, anyway. But in the house of my decent and civilised Dutch brother and his wife, they seemed to transmogrify into weevils. Each meal saw me bobbing up and down to chase runaway son, or wag finger at table-mannerless daughter. There was the serious-talking-to-in-suppressed-hisses in the bedroom, the frank yelling, the failed time out on the thinking step (son simply runs upstairs to play), and then son's pièce de résistance: the nightly bed sorties. This saw yours truly reduced to near tears (I am a 42-year-old adult, ladies and gentlemen), as son popped repeatedly and relentlessly out of bed and reappeared in the doorway, like a demented Punch puppet. My final gambit involved putting him in the car outside for ten minutes, while I sat in the darkened hallway, my head rattling with insane, murderous thoughts, and I winced in shame.

So much for the poor behaviour. The stage I hadn't bargained for was the parenting coaching session I then received from my brother and sister-in-law. The latter is all behaviourist – a former nurse who brought her two sons up with boundaries so clean they squeaked. The former suffered at the hands of the same father I did, and has a much murkier view of character development. For my brother, it was a mystery (with shady Oedipal overtones) as to what motivated my son to torment me with his naughtiness. For my sister-in-law, it was clear as a bell: I was niet consequent. I apparently do not follow through on my instructions. My children are living a life without boundaries, the long-term outcome of which will be that they will turn into football hooligans, coming across to Holland on ferries, throwing cobble stones, and overturning bicycles. Although now that we've voted to Brexit, none of that matters, we can all just turn our cobble stones on each other. Frankly, it's all we'll have to eat.

On our last morning, I sat breakfasting with son, who demanded to get down mid-repast. I said no, and then, apparently, I relented, entering into what is known in the UK as a conversation with my child, in which he promises to do something if I let him do something else. I've found this to work with my truculent son, albeit slowing life down a little. But in Naaldwijk, this was a sign of my maternal lenience. I found my sister-in-law sitting next to me, pointing out where I'm soft on crime and the causes of crime, bewildered by which set of parenting rules I was supposed to be following.

I exited the arena to fume under the shower about interference.

But later, on the Hoek of Holland ferry, I watched as a brood of twelve (I'm not kidding) freckle-faced, broad-beamed children ran amok. It was like watching a cartoon of feral meerkats on speed. They actually bullied the shipboard entertainer into stopping his show, at which my daughter burst into tears (she was nearly seven when this happened – today a fifteen-year-old taller than I am, she can still remember the moment with crystalline clarity).

Their mothers appeared, several hours later, formidable identical Irish twin sisters. They had both dyed their red hair... red. One wore a denim miniskirt that covered some of her upper thigh, revealing the contents of many childbirths hanging over the waistband. Neither of them did anything to rein in the exuberance of their sweet little kiddies. Their husbands had propped up the bar throughout the voyage. They left the ferry in a windowless white van, pulling the biggest caravan in the world.

I realise as I read this description back that I sound like a bigoted prig. I'm not, as it happens, but incidents like that make me reconsider… One woman's freedom is another woman's ruined ferry crossing. I think John Locke might have something to say on the matter. Boundaries of some kind are perhaps desirable after all.

Later still, back on English soil, I was in M&S with son, who was throwing a wobbly about some naughtiness. He stood in the middle of the aisle, wailing piteously, scooter thrown to the floor. I calmly paid for my purchases, and then waited, calmly, exactly where I was, until he pulled himself together and came to me for a cuddle.

In the meantime, I had to endure the censure of multitudes of old ladies, young ladies, men, and children, staring at me as though I was the devil's work for leaving a poor little boy sobbing in a supermarket.

I am unrepentant. The Dutch are on to something.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Laverne Antrobus and Oliver James, on Between Ourselves, R4

I've just listened, twice, to Between Ourselves, which asked the question: "How Should We Raise Our Children?". A subject close to my heart.

It was structured thusly: first, a spiel about the psychologists' own childhoods (James's was rather lacking in nurture, he told us, while Antrobus's was blessed with a very present mother). Secondly, an excursion into what children need (love, from one continuous source, a parent or another, until they are 3, then love and more love, with a few more people thrown in for good measure). Thirdly, a critique of the Supernanny style of intervention ('thinking step' only good in extreme situations according to James; 'thinking step' good for irate mummies who need to calm down, for Antrobus). Finally, an answer to what needs to change in society for us to be better parents. For James, it's simple: we need to be Scandinavian. We need to move to a society in which everything is set up for the wellbeing of its citizens, rather than maximum profit for the few. For Antrobus, it's all about the teaching of respect and empathy for others.

This all sounds very wonderful -- the conclusions are those reached in most childcare books, and in the A Good Childhood report brought out by the Children's Society. It is fine to be a good enough parent (WHAT'S THAT? HOW MANY WEEKLY ACTIVITIES DOES THAT MEAN? IS IT OK TO SERVE CHIPS?)

One waits to hear how to carry out this marvellous parenting. And lo and behold, James inadvertently reveals all. Mothers, he opined, need to reflect on whether they want to continue to have the status they had before children, or to acquire a status "lower than a street sweeper". What is never addressed in programmes like these, which delight in telling us that we are both somehow wrong and good enough, is the great problem of the status of maternity.

Women are caught up in capitalism at every level, and it is fundamentally incompatible with the nurture of children. Whether women are out earning their own money, then giving most of it to a childcare provider, or relying on their husband being a breadwinner, or living on benefits, they must spend, spend, spend to raise their children, because every area of our lives is so thoroughly commercialized. You can't go to a park and breathe in the fresh air without spending money. If you take a picnic, you'll need to have shopped beforehand for the constituent parts, braving the barrage of kiddy-oriented nonsense on sale at knee height in all shops. If you want to avoid pester power, you'll need a breadwinning partner so that you can afford to leave the children with someone while you weave round the supermarket. The recessive trail of avoiding accidental or pressure purchases while out with your children is exhausting even to consider. Easier to buy a bun en route. I digress.

To return to my point, James feels the need to tell women they will have zero status as mothers. I realize he was being 'ironic'. But, of course, he also wasn't, since he speaks a fundamental truth. I have to live with the paradox that I am somehow simultaneously doing the most important job in the world, which I shouldn't be leaving to anyone else, AND that I have absolutely zero status, despite my educational background and achievements prior to having children. Extraordinary. And on top of that, I'm to be subjected to bus drivers calling the police if I refuse to take my child out of her buggy when the bus is half empty; or have to listen as young men tell me my children's toes must be cold; or need to put up with women walking into my home and quite openly telling me what is wrong with my domestic set-up.

Am I ranting? I'm so sorry, I forgot, I'm supposed to be the fount of all empathy, in order to model good behaviour for my children. And as for smacking, which both psychologists agreed fervently must never, ever, ever take place.... well, I was soundly beaten as a child. Ah! I hear you cry, this explains everything. I swore I would never smack my children. And then I went through some of the most stressful times I have ever lived through, and I did smack them. I felt crippled with guilt, I fell into a state of depression, I sought counselling. I have striven to overcome my temper, I have reflected deeply on my past, my impatience, on the needs of my children. I take more time, I have learnt to step away from trigger situations. Most of the time.

That's the short version of events. Smacking happens. And, Mr James, and Ms Antrobus, although it shouldn't happen, if it does, it is not the worst thing that could ever happen to a child, as long as the parent learns from it, and as long as unthinking judgement is not aimed indiscriminately at mothers by all sectors of society, including child psychologists.

James loftily tells us that we need to change British society completely. Helpful. Millions of women agree, millions of women try every day to change society by teaching their children to share, to show respect, simply by loving them. Primary schools do nothing else. But women do so largely unsupported, by each other, by their families, by their partners, by their employers, by stupid government policies that aren't based on the needs of mothers, by extortionate childcare costs. So stop telling us what to do, and give mothers two things. The respect they deserve, and cheap, excellent childcare.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

That Article in the Observer

Over the past few weeks I have been astonished at the number of people who have referred me to an article by journalist and writer Lucy Cavendish, which appeared at the end of March 2010 in the Observer.

I read it with interest the first time it was mentioned, but felt that it was all old news, that we all know the story of the 'Mummy Wars', the stay-at-homes v. the working mums, the power of Mumsnet, and the playground antagonism. I wasn't sure what the article contributed to the debate, or how it took the debate forward, other than to re-present the normalizing perspective of the self-confessed 'Slacker Mum', speaking from the position of non-hothouser, non-combatant, mild-mannered raiser of kids. This, it seemed to me, was a very appealing position to take (supine), which was bound to solicit a lot of empathy, sympathy, and further first-person accounts of unwarranted sniping by mothers on mothers.

Except that it didn't: the comments at the foot of Cavendish's article were just as astonishing as the number of people who told me about it. The 109 comments she has received for her 'Mummy Wars' piece are, in the main, vitriolic. Most of them occupy the "get a life" terrain, in which the very existence of the 'Mummy Wars' is dismissed as further middle class/media self-indulgence. Others berate her for suggesting that women still do not earn as much as men. Very few sympathize with her or extend the argument.

The sheer number of comments made me think again. Clearly the article touched a nerve or it would have sunk without trace. So many people recommended it to me, in part because they know I'm writing a book about motherhood, but mainly because it touched a nerve for them too. In fact these are the same people who say, laying a hand on my arm, "what a timely book you're doing! I really want to read it!"

But what do they want me to say? All Lucy Cavendish does is point once again at the persistence of tensions between groups of mothers, and she ends with the entirely reasonable notion that what matters is loving our children. She cites a number of experts — sociologists and psychologists — who talk about the lowered self-esteem of mothers, and about how extended family support for parenting has withered. But she doesn't conclude about any of them — really we are left thinking that the only option is to muddle through, and wonder what on earth it was all about.

It seems to me that there is no external frame to the discussion. We have millions of mothers and fathers bobbing about in the sea of society, with their self-help books or their accounts with the Early Learning Centre, wondering whether the childless Gina Ford can really have much to tell them about 4am sobbing. We have vitriol, and playground bullying -- between mothers. We have Mumsnet with its "Am I Being Unreasonable…?" (well, yes you probably are if you start a sentence this way… it's the same as saying "With all due respect").

But we have no limit to the discussion, no framework within which to understand it. The only thing that most people cling to is the grossly misleading idea of 'stay-at-home v. working mothers'. This is a polarizing opposition which denies the enormous spectrum of choices that real people actually make, and reduces that set of choices to two, regardless of the age of the children, the family's needs, the woman's needs, and the children's characters.

The opposition 'stay at home v. working' is just another version of the Victorian opposition imposed on women, between the angel and the whore: in Victorian England women were expected to be either one or the other, but simultaneously, and impossibly, they were also expected to be both: the tart with a heart and the temptress in the middle class boudoir. How confusing is that? We still idealize and denigrate femininity and motherhood at one and the same time, with a similar paradox. Of course women cannot be all things to all people all of the time, but it's incredibly convenient to send them the message that they ought to be.

And there is also the question of fathers. There is a whole generation of men trying very, very hard to overcome their own upbringing, to be better fathers than their own were, while continuing to forge careers. The guilt that many men feel is at least as great as the guilt most women feel. But we continue to gender guilt as though it were somehow inherently a feminine emotion.

But having argued that there is no external frame to the 'Mummy Wars' debate, it is equally hard to construct one. Is this an ideological impasse? Is this the way things are, have ever been, from Clytemnestra and Medea onwards? Is the frame really the stand-off between feminism and capitalism? If you read a novelist like Houellebecq, he will assert that the existentialists of the postwar period are the rich capitalist babyboomers of the current age. Perhaps it is the same with feminism: the legacy of yesteryear's idealism is a generation of totally overworked and underpaid women trying to 'have it all' between shifting goalposts?

'-Isms', however, are made up of people and their choices. We do not solve, only reify, problems when we pack them up as neat '-isms'. No one is exempt from the workings of ideology, but we do all experience it differently. Even if it's true to say that motherhood today is an over-egged pudding, we will still go on raising children, somehow.

Which brings me back to Lucy Cavendish: she seems to have poked a stick into the ants' nest and stirred it all up again. Motherhood is political, it's official: just look at the Conservatives' ad campaign, with its images of women who say they have never voted Tory before now (while looking extraordinarily Middle England). But let's remind ourselves that 'motherhood' is as much a construction serving other people's interests as it is a natural, biological, essential drive in the human female.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010


Having spent my time recently haring about to interview men and women for the book I'm working on, I felt like sitting back with a glass of wine and some good TV the other night.

I had taped the current series running on BBC4 entitled Women, and lo and behold, our Lovefilm account spat Enchanted through our letterbox. I ended up glutting on a programme about who really does the UK's domestic work, followed swiftly by Enchanted, Disney's deconstruction of the very figure it has itself created: the cartoon version of the fairytale princess.

The Women doc was about how men and women divide up domestic labour, and whether it has become equally shared -- posited as 'one of feminism's central goals' (I'm not sure it really was a goal, more an object of critique).

is about how A. N. Fairytale Heroine comes to question her faith in the ideal of 'Happy Ever After With A Prince'. She learns to value reason, and to listen to her own emotions, rather than blindly love the first man who comes along. This lesson comes to her as an unexpected by-product of being banished to New York by the power-crazed queen, mother of her betrothed prince.

I would say that my evening's viewing wasn't just connected by watching doc and film back to back in a haze of Chardonnay. Both Women and Enchanted are examinations of the tale of Cinderella.

The Women doc was fascinating. A series of couples, mainly middle class, were interviewed alone and together, to uncover who is doing what in the home. Hey presto, apart from the Ear Nose and Throat surgeon, who clearly and unashamedly outsources all domestic duties, and has a separate ring tone for her nanny, we can conclude that most domestic labour is being carried out by women.

In one case, we saw a woman who runs a very successful illustration business from home, and actually employs her husband as a stay at home father -- but who does not call herself a feminist (instead she actively claims the title of Control Freak, with a pretty giggle).

But the rest was pretty much what we'd expect: women out in the workplace, and doing most of the chores at home, or women actively choosing to stay at home, and therefore doing most of the chores at home.

There were honourable exceptions; separated couples; and satisfied customers who felt they were the winners in the debate, regardless of how much hoovering they had to do. But the work was still being done by the women, however you sliced the working v. stay at home pie, whatever the justifications or the resentments. There is still such a thing as 'women's work'.

I doubt anyone watching expected any different -- I would lay bets that most women watching the ENT surgeon judged her negatively, although she was simply an extremely efficient, brilliantly intelligent, competent person. It was noticeable that the doc started with the (shock of the) surgeon, and never returned to her point of view. And it was also noticeable that the women were not encouraged to talk to each other. All was facilitated by the documentary maker. The women were both connected and separated by the process of making the doc.

What annoys me about focusing on domestic labour is that it erases important differences between women. It posits that all mothers are on an equal footing regardless of the story they lived before they became mothers, or how they are juggling afterwards. So the Ear, Nose and Throat surgeon who has very successfully carried on her career is presented in such a way as to look unfeeling in her efficiency, where the primary school teachers and ex-primary school teachers who either muddle through or have actually given up their careers, but who did not initially achieve the kind of academic success that the woman who became a surgeon must have done, are presented as being somehow more 'human'. But this is an outrageous skewing of reality, and of definitions of caring. What about women's aspiration, the way they are encouraged to succeed at school and university?

The doc nevertheless draws you in. When the stay at home mum is filmed in her kitchen, being happy with her children, we agree that it does look idyllic (although the fact that she seems to be running her home as though it were a primary school is slightly disturbing). Another stay at home mum, who has relocated to the country, is filmed picking fruit and digging up carrots with her gorgeous toddler, and we are at first convinced -- women are really meant to be poised bucolically over the Aga.

But then during the conversation with her husband, we realize that, in her words, the division of labour is a 'one-way street'. Her husband resists doing tasks that he thinks they are both 'equally capable of doing', such as lighting the Aga, but when his wife turns to him and asks why he doesn't do other tasks that they are both 'able to do', such as wash the kitchen floor, he doesn't have an answer. Clearly tasks are and remain gendered, and the man's excuse for not helping his wife is ideological nonsense -- he just wants to preserve his time off for himself.

Enchanted? Well it was just enchanting. How I loved the notion that the fairytale princess can cure social evils with her belief in true love. How I want that to be true. But we see her taking the first steps along the road to loss of naivety, just as I watch my 6 year old taking those steps, hand in hand with Jacqueline Wilson, her shouty mother, and the attentions of the 6 year old boys in the playground.

So although we have a 'Happy Ever After' in Enchanted that is deemed to be based on a more realistic notion of falling in love, through getting to know one's lover well, I still want to see the film that connects Enchanted with Disenchanted, which should have been the subtitle of the domestic labour doc. How do we get from love to running households without throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

Sunday, 28 February 2010

A Good Childhood: who knew?

A Good Childhood is a report for the Children's Society. I'd never heard of it, but my husband got it for work. I think he was in part inspired to buy it by the terrible UN report back in around 2006, which put the UK at the bottom of the heap for good places to raise kids.

The report's been put together by Richard Layard and Judy Dunn, although they are really only the final adjusters, synthesizing an absolutely huge amount of research, that has been done on the state of childhood and all that contributes to it (ie the whole of British society, saturated in consumerist capitalist ideology).

Richard Layard is the economist who wrote Happiness, and the report is written in a delightful avuncular style, which just makes my heart melt. It's very tough: we hear about the dreadful state of the UK education system, about mental ill-health in children and young people, and the terrible impact of consumerism, substance abuse, violent games, and overworked parents. Yet because the report approaches this toxic state of affairs through language which implies that we could all reach an ideal if we changed the way we do things just slightly, the book is immensely empowering to read.

It is so painfully rare to read a diagnosis of damage and trouble which isn't written in a sensational style that feeds on what it is diagnosing. Many people's everyday comments to each other take this form, unaware that they are not 'outing' problems, but participating in them and perpetuating them. I think we can all remember moments when we opened up to a friend, and found ourselves on the receiving end of a debilitating confirmation of our worst fears. Competitive fearfulness is itself a reflection of a cripplingly competitive culture.

I think that Layard is absolutely right when he pinpoints competition as the thing that could be killing childhood. He finds it everywhere, in consumerist social attitudes, in over-testing, and in the discrimination which both engenders mental health problems, but then turns those problems into labels and traps people still further. Perhaps it is true that we all read books which justify our choices and views, but I have rarely read a book in which I recognized my dilemma and the sources of its solution so clearly.

This is a book that can't really address the problem of whether or not women should work once they have children, but it does take up the point that continuity of care, and avoidance of materialism for its own sake, are general goods. And it recognizes that people must be allowed to find fulfillment for themselves. Failing to avoid avoidable damage is what causes problems for children: if a happy mother is a working mother, then that's good for the children, whether she's physically there at the end of the day or not.

It never occurred to me that a report for the Children's Society could be unputdownable. There is an overt strand of Christian rhetoric which threatens ever so slightly to tip the book over into the conservative camp. But it is hard to assert that Christian values are intrinsically bad ones. Secular society still needs the same — or very similar — values, with or without the faith part. This book should be handed out with the free nappies in hospitals, and every teacher in the land should be given a copy. Certainly every Government minister should be playing it on her ipod.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Mommy Wars

Mommy Wars (edited by Leslie Morgan Steiner (Random House, 2006)) is billed as a ‘face-off’ between ‘career’ and ‘stay-at-home moms’.

My heart began to sink immediately. Another attack on women, another simplistic polarization of the choices women make and the choices that are open to them once they have children.

In fact, however, this collection of essays isn’t nearly as bad as its own cover makes it sound. It’s not a ‘face-off’ at all, but a collection of essays about motherhood written by highly literate women, many of them already well-established writers and journalists. I really enjoyed the experience of reading about so many women’s lives (even though I had a guilty twinge at the realization that pretty much all of them exactly shared my profile, so that all that was really going on was a huge moan-fest).

Some essays have clearly been taken from other sources and re-published for the purposes of this book. In that sense there is an element of professional performance here: many of these women are very conscious of the politics and processes of writing and publication: they know, as it were, what they are doing when they write (if not when they mother). This is very pleasurable: you feel in safe hands. But there is a considerable degree of manipulation going on: these are not altogether ‘authentic’ experiences, and this is not a fly on the wall, in medias res capture of the experience of mothering. There is bound to be a lot that goes unsaid, and a lot that gets edited out, airbrushed.

There are some first-time writers here, and there are also a couple of accounts of truly awful parenting involving abuse and violence — but not first-person accounts. What we read are mediated accounts, written through the anxieties of mothers who want never to fall into the trap of abuse, who fear it in themselves, and need to abject that fear by displacing it onto another mother.

What is missing, too, is much synthesis that would bring together and differentiate between the huge and rich range of experiences voiced by the individual writers. I find this pretty lazy, and feel that the editor could have done more than simply marshal her extensive team. What was she trying to say? What was she trying to prove? That experience is relative, that anything goes, that all our choices are OK, as long as the children are (relatively) happy?

Having read Mommy Wars, pretty avidly I confess, I find it impossible to look back and remember any one essay – apart from one comment in a piece by Anna Fels, a full-time career psychiatrist and mother.

Her essay is ostensibly about many women’s experience of being haunted by an ‘other’, a figure representing the mother they might have been, had they made different choices (this haunting by an ‘other’ is echoed in the fear of being or becoming an abuser). Julia, the eponymous other to Anna Fels, was a stay-at-home mother, and they were each other’s greatest fear personified. Julia represented Anna’s guilt at being a working mother, Anna brought Julia’s suppressed feelings of inadequacy and failure to life. Perhaps needless to say, their friendship didn’t survive this crushing opposition. However the apparent central tenet of Anna Fels’s essay isn’t what most struck me. What has remained with me is a simple economic truth she mentions as an aside:

The irony is that for most of the twentieth century, […] employers subsidized the most expensive, full-time, individualized child care that exists—namely, the stay-at-home wives of their male employees. Now the same companies employ vast numbers of women in pink-collar and lower-management positions while making no accommodation for child care. At the same time, real wages were lowered so that two earners are now required to maintain the middle-class standard of living that required only one income in the 1970s. In effect, employers passed the full cost of child care on to individual families and significantly increased the hours of labor per family. Businesses, for the most part, still act as if there’s a full-time housewife at home taking care of the kids. [my italics]

I might add that schools also still act in this way, expecting mothers to soak up the extra administration they generate, and be available to pick up their children at a moment’s notice. As do GPs, whose surgery hours are completely inconvenient to working parents. But no matter.

What Anna Fels so painfully reminds me is that most women nowadays don’t have the choice not to work. It’s actually a hugely expensive luxury to stay at home with your children. The women so reviled as ‘yummy mummies’, who don’t work, although their children are at school and who seem to spend their time with personal trainers and meeting other ‘yummies’ for coffee, are yesterday’s housewives. They aren’t the equivalent of the Edwardian upper class women who employed a nanny and a housekeeper (although most ‘yummies’ would probably have a cleaner and possibly a nanny). Yummy mummies form the newly emerged upper-middle-class category that is based on money earnt and not inherited. Many of them will have had a good education, and probably a good career up to the point of having children. They are hated simply because they have jumped clear of the juggle that so many other women face just to have a normal standard of living. But good for them! They are the economic winners in a deeply unequal society. To the winner the Costa coffee.

Mommy Wars has emerged from the US, but the same economic model is at work in the UK. The paradox is that you go to work mainly to earn the money to pay for someone else to look after your children — but if you don’t go to work, and stay at home, your family loses out financially another way.

I look back at my own family set up: my mother did not work throughout my childhood, and in fact my father was also at home, being an older dad who took early retirement. We lived on his pension. My parents never had a mortgage. This is absolutely unthinkable now without significant private means. Relative earnings have gone down, when compared with the cost of living. We have a large mortgage, and one income because I have chosen to stay at home until at least our second child is in school. Ideally I want to write books and be available for my children when they come out of school, but this is probably a fantasy. The way in which we are living is completely unsustainable in the long term. There is almost no buffer if something goes wrong.

When I compare our situation to what I grew up with, it sounds as though I came from distinctly upper-middle-class origins, but nothing could be further from the truth: both my parents came from middle to lower middle class roots, and were given their break in life through education. They were determined that we should have the same chances if not better. They struggled to maintain the lifestyle my brother and I enjoyed, and I was very aware of penny-pinching — I knew better than to take our privileges for granted.

But in today's Britain, with all the advantages I enjoyed as a child, and all the qualifications I earned, I am nevertheless unable to provide half what my parents did for my own two children. The only way I could do this is to work full-time. This may still come, and once both children are at school, the costs of childcare would be much reduced. But the impact on the children of long hours out of the house is very great. It is obvious that they need the comfort of being able to potter about at home, and the freedom to share any troubles with a parent. This is an intrinsic part of their emotional and psychological development. In an economic equation in which one has two incomes and two children, what would be squeezed out is my relationship with my children, and in part their natural development. I’m not sure what the point of having children was, if I don’t have a relationship with them, and if I knowingly make choices that are damaging to them. I'm not even bothering to mention the situation for fathers.

The bottom line has been for me that the choices I have been left with as a working mother are non-choices. I have had to carve out an existence without status, without sufficient income to do what I want to do, and against the grain of contemporary consumerist society in order to be a happy mother.

In part this is what I want (or have come to want, or have been left gleaning). I like growing tomatoes and baking my own bread, and I do prefer working from home, and writing. Perhaps I didn’t know what I wanted before. Perhaps the stress and antagonism of most workplaces just isn’t for me anyway, regardless of children. Perhaps I just get bored quickly.

Friday, 29 January 2010

A King's Ransom

In Ransom, David Malouf has taken an episode recounted in the Iliad, and investigated it to find its inner workings. It is a moment of suspense and inaction, in which war has petered out because of a failure of mourning, on both sides. A father’s desire to honour his dead son is pitted against a man’s desire to avenge the death of his best friend, and stalemate has ensued.

Hector, King Priam’s son, has been killed by Achilles, the Greek warrior and leader of the Myrmidons. This is in reprisal for Hector’s killing of Patroclus, Achilles’ best friend.

Achilles has dishonoured Hector’s body by dragging it behind a chariot up and down in front of the walls of Troy for twelve days, in front of the horrified Priam and Queen Hecuba. He has refused to return the body for proper burial.

War is suspended while Achilles, maddened by grief, cannot abandon Hector’s body or grieve for Patroclus. Neither side, in fact, can begin the grieving process: on Priam’s side because the symbol of death, the buried body, is missing, and on Achilles’ side because the body is all too present, and cannot be killed again. Achilles is walled up inside his fury, unable to mourn Patroclus because he cannot stop killing Hector. Priam is walled up inside the besieged Troy, powerless to act.

Priam is a king of visions. He converses with the gods:

‘An old, dreamlike passivity in him that he no longer finds it necessary to resist will dissolve the boundary between what is solid and tangible in the world […] and the weightless medium in which is consciousness is adrift, where the gods, in their bodily presence, have the same consistency as his thoughts.’

His ability to suspend his conscious focus on materiality around him is paralleled by his understanding of his own kingship:

‘Holding in his head all the roads that lead out to the distant parts of his kingdom, he feels them at times as ribbons tied at the centre of him, for the most part loose but sometimes stretched taut and pulling a little, according to what is occurring out there — events that his body is aware of as a dim foreboding long before the last in a relay of messengers, who for days have been running down dusty roads, bursts in to deliver it as news.’

Kingship consists of an act of empathetic imagination (in an era lacking instantaneous communication), in which the king intuits through his own body whether his citizens are well or ill.

What Priam learns from his conversation with the Goddess Iris, after Hector’s death, is that events have fallen out not by predetermination, but by chance. And it is this sudden apprehension that chance may determine outcomes that inspires in him a dream or vision of himself going to Achilles not as a king but as an old man, with a cartload of gold, to offer as a symbolic ransom for his son’s body. As a man, not as a king, and yet with a king’s ransom. He realizes that it is only in taking the greatest risk, making himself most vulnerable, appearing as he is without the adornment of his symbolic status, that he stands a chance of retrieving Hector. He must take his chances, and enter the unknown, because the normal protocols of war and diplomacy have failed. Normality has been disordered.

He is determined to take a ransom to Achilles, not because he feels he can put a price on his son’s body, but because he was himself ransomed as a six-year-old boy. Born Podarces, a prince, the son of King Laomedon of Troy, he survived slaughter at the hands of Laomedon’s enemy Heracles only because his sister Hesione chose him as her plaything just before she was sent away as a gift of war. Heracles grants Hesione her wish but renames Podarces:

“Let his name, from now on, be Priam, the price paid, the gift given to buy your brother back from the dead. So that each time he hears himself named, this is what he will recall. That till I allowed you to chose him out of this filthy rabble, he was a slave like any other, a nameless thing.”

Priam has never been able to forget this moment, the forking of the way in his life. He was exposed to chance as a six-year-old, and shown that the gods can play with mortals, that nothing is given. Part of him has lived the life of the slave he so nearly became. He is not a king through and through.

It is because Priam has before crossed over to the other side of his own destiny, and envisioned one completely contrary to the one that has actually played out, that he is able to commune with the gods through visions. It is this metaphysical traversal that also makes it possible for him to understand that he can abandon his king’s trappings, and cross over to the Greeks’ camp as an old man and a father.

The whole of Ransom, then, turns on the idea of crossings, from Troy to the Greek camp, from youth to old age, from son to father, from anger to grief, from life to death. Nothing can reverse death, the dead cannot cross back over to the side of the living, but in the world of the Iliad, and for David Malouf, it seems that the symbolic energy of death can be activated by transferring the body to its rightful place. This is what will enable the fluidity of grief to flow into the space that the physical body once occupied, and also enable time to move forward again.

But these crossings all come at a price. There is a ransom to be paid, whether it is symbolic or actual (and it is always both) in order to effect the crossing. The Romans placed a coin in the mouth of their dead to pay Charon the boatman who would ferry them across the Styx into the Underworld. The custom of burying kings with their treasure, even their slaves and wives, is well known from Egypt to Sussex. To change from one state to another, we must give something up.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

It's to die for

Legend of a Suicide is an astonishing set of short stories and a novella by David Vann (Penguin, 2008). It would be hard to call it a novel, although all the stories revolve around the same theme: suicide (oddly enough).

David Vann comes from Alaska, which is an odd enough country to be from in the first place. It’s a little like coming from Iceland, where it’s practically obligatory to be a craftsman or woman, in some line of creative endeavour, whether making clothes or jewellery or Nordic myths. Seemingly everyone worth their salt in Alaska is a huntsman and carpenter, filling their homes with handmade tables and beds, and covering their floors with furs.

But Vann’s personal history makes simply coming from Alaska pale into insignificance. Here is a man whose father went out and had affairs, divorced his mother, divorced his stepmother, had more affairs, failed as a dentist, a woodsman and a fisherman, and then shot himself.

You can’t trust that all the facts about Vann’s life that seem to be recounted within the stories are true, because they often contradict each other. But the protagonist’s father certainly shot himself. Guns are a recurring theme in the stories, whether the father or the son is mishandling them. There is a scene in which the son breaks into his own home, in the years after his father’s suicide, looking around it through the eyes of an intruder. Later he takes one of his father’s guns and shoots out all the windows of his own home. It turns out that he hopes one of his mother’s better boyfriends, a cop, will turn up at the crime scene. As it happens the cop does appear, but the boy’s very action means that the cop can never become a father to him. He both desperately wants a father, and constantly destroys any possibility of a relationship with one.

There appears at first to be little structure in the collection of tales: they seem to be connected oneirically. By the fourth, Sukkwan Island, however, it becomes clear that there is a palindromic organization, with the shorter episodes, or versions, of the main story circulating in constellation around this novella-length story. Everything points towards Sukkwan Island.

In this story Vann puts his protagonist, Roy, and his father, Jim, on a tiny island, up an Alaskan fjord. They are the only human inhabitants. Jim has sold his dentistry practice to buy a very small A-frame hut, in which he intends to live with his thirteen-year-old son for a year. They are going to hunt and fish for their food, and survive alone.

Very soon, however, Roy, through whose eyes we see the first part of the story, realizes that his father is not well. He cries at night, but pretends that nothing is wrong during the day. He clearly has no idea how to survive in the wilderness and makes elementary mistakes because he has no ability to perceive the consequences of his actions. Once, on a hike, his father appears to step off a cliff, crashing many metres down, and nearly killing himself. He begins to make radio contact with his ex-second wife, hoping to rekindle her affections, but to no avail. Roy broods silently, wishing he could get away, frightened by his father’s unreliability, abandoned and bored. They stockpile an enormous amount of food in a pit, and lock it away, but fail to build a proper shelter for firewood. The winter hits them. At the end of the first part of the story, Roy walks into the hut to find his father playing with a pistol.

Vann’s singular purpose in these stories is to articulate and re-articulate the dynamic that exists between father and son. At many points what is described is the failure of a dynamic, a dialogue that in fact only takes place in the boy’s head, as he desperately tries to understand the clues and signs his father scatters about: in the final story, The Higher Blue, the narrator imagines father and son making zabaglione, using three different recipe books which all contradict one another:

But when he [the boy] looks at the recipe, he sees that it calls for six egg yolks. They have only three eggs. The other recipe called for only three eggs. The boy grapples with his fear of annihilation. Does he dare to point out another flaw ? Won’t it start to look like his own fault ?

The boy grapples with his fear of annihilation, because he can never tell what reaction he will meet if he points out a problem to his father — and there are many problems, because of his father’s essential incompetence and unreliability. Desperate to forgive and condone his father, in order to get him back (or get him at all), the boy tries to short-circuit the adult-child order, and take responsibility for the many, many mistakes, making it his own fault that he can see them so clearly, as though he is a traitor to his father’s self-image. He does not want to be the boy who points out that the emperor has no clothes.

But the boy himself is not always so reliable. Vann is a master of leading the narrative tone in one direction, and then disrupting it out of nowhere, so that our conclusions about the boy’s own mental stability are constantly called into question. In Ketchikan, the boy, now aged 30, goes back to his childhood village, to try to lay his father’s ghost to rest. He works on a fish farm:

Late night, I wandered. At the gates of the hatchery, I spun the lock, slipped inside. I took hundreds of little fingerlings by net, dumped handfuls in my pockets, walked along cliffs above the roadway, bare rock cut in grooves, and held out the fish one by one in an open palm. The miniature salmon leaped each of their own accord, a tail flash into the night, glint of silver, sixty feet of twisting, and an inaudible slap to the pavement below. Waiting then. For water, for some new rule, new possibility, that could make pavement not pavement, air not air, a fall not a fall.

The reader believes the boy to be a victim of his father’s suicide and mental illness. The obvious sense in which the miniature salmon are standing in for Roy cannot, however, cancel out the way in which he abuses them, transmitting his abandonment to other living creatures in the form of torture. When we realize his sadism towards the fish, and couple it with other moments, like the shooting of the windows, a more frightening abyss opens, in which Roy has inherited his father’s mental absences and lapses, and we wonder what his future will bring.

Vann’s style is often still and simple, with a high degree of repetition. When Roy and his father are alone together on Sukkwan Island, they do an awful lot of sleeping, reading, eating, chopping, fishing and digging, and it rains or snows almost constantly. The narrative unfolds line by line: it is impossible to see further ahead than the next sentence, as though the words were shrouded in the same mist as the island itself. Patient and persistent, a terrible foreboding stomps along, and builds itself into a mountain of anticipation: when will things change? What is the outcome going to be? It is going to be terrible — but how terrible?

But at moments this linearity and simplicity is forsaken for an intense lyricism that recalls Lautréamont. In Ketchikan, the adult Roy decides to take a rowing boat out of harbour at night:

A warm, strong breeze, carrying all but the water, no ripple but its hold strong on everything else, making distance impossible. I rowed unnoticed beneath masts and sonar, bells and spotlights, rowed, I fancied, with the seamless propulsion of jellyfish in the one element, rowed past jagged rocks onto a sea nostalgic and opaque, swelling slowly, as if considering spilling over until the rim of the world lifted inevitably, slipped, and I was in a rowboat, wet from mist and shivering […].

He is suspended in a dreamlike state until the consequences of the ocean’s reality spill over him, and he comes to, aware of the risk he has taken, and his littleness in the face of the sea’s cold power.

In Legend of a Suicide, nature is an adversary, a killer, from which bounty may be ripped at great personal cost. Man is an ignorant, foolish weakling in nature, for the most part screened from his true nullity by city life, habit, and the common sense of women. “I don’t have to be angry any more,” says Roy’s mother. “I can feel sorry for him now and do the old-woman-rich-with-memories-and-longing routine. Though occasionally I give it a rest.”