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.