Friday, 21 September 2012

How to be a woman, Caitlin Moran

I set off into this book with a slight prickle about my person. It can get my goat when a book seems to trade in self-deprecating humour, especially when the author is a woman. What is being masked by the humour? So often it is self-loathing, as if the only legitimate entry into public discourse for the (female) speaker is self-negation. Why do women have to twist themselves into such knots in order to speak. Can't they just... Speak? 

Perhaps How to be a Woman trades a little too much in this form of self-justification. But its approach to its subject is so unusual and riveting that it can be forgiven. 

I have never seen a feminist account of womanhood written in such an irrepressible blend of first person memoir and self-help. 

Caitlin Moran has a certain kind of passport past the customs officials guarding feminism precisely because she is not an Oxbridge-educated success story. Hers is a story of success against most people's odds: home-educated -- or rather an autodidact -- in an incredibly poor family, the eldest of an astonishingly large number of siblings, she dreamt of escape to London, to be a music journalist, and somehow wangled her way into Melody Maker aged only about 16. 

It makes me think of Jacqueline Wilson, who similarly managed to get into journalism very young : famously, Jackie magazine was named after her, because they were looking round the office for a suitable girl's name, and spotted the young Jacqueline, still almost the right readership age. 

The passport comes from the entirely unprotected way Moran has set out in life and sought out experience. Rare is the woman who has negotiated the British social obstacle course with quite such relish and optimism. 

Moran writes acutely and vividly about universal female experiences like puberty, menstruation, love, dealing with sexism, marriage and weddings, giving birth, and most arrestingly, abortion and cosmetic surgery. The chapter list reads like a Seven Ages of Woman, and I'm eagerly anticipating her old age, so that we can read about how to be a grandmother, and how to grow old disgracefully. 

What is unique about her is the distillation of deep reading with uninhibited action. She takes the message of women's liberation completely seriously. There are many messages in the book, and most of them are flagged "are the men doing this? Do the men need to worry about this?" Her rule of thumb is that if men do not need to concern themselves with an issue, nor should women. 

This is the philosophy that enables her to take what for many women would be, if not an impossible decision, then certainly a very depressing one, to abort a healthy child. Moran is resolute  in her assertion that women not only ought to have, but actually do have, dominion over their own bodies. She asserts also that this position trumps the attempt to define when life actually begins. These two arguments are key to her painful decision, helping her to go through with the abortion facing up to it completely. She does not suffer afterwards, because she was sure of what she was doing going into the event. She does not deny the physical and mental pain of it, but she is able to bear it because she believes completely in the probity and authenticity of her own capacity to decide about what happens within her own body:

I suppose what I'd been given to believe is that my body -- or my subconscious -- would be angry with me for not having the baby. And that, additionally, their opinion on the matter would in some way, be superior -- more 'natural', more moral -- to the rational decision my conscious mind had made. That women were made to have babies, and that each one that is not brought to fruition must be accounted for and mourned and repented for, and would remain unforgiven forever. But all I could see -- and all I can see now, years later -- is history made of millions of women trying to undo the mistake that could then undo them, and then just carrying on, quiet, thankful, and silent about the whole thing. What I see, is that it can be an action with only good consequence.

'Abortion', unlike most of the other chapters, is not composed of an exclamatory first-person phrase ('I become furry!'). Moran certainly did not take the decision lightly, and the tone of her writing is concomitantly much more serious, measured and careful than the other chapters. To me, that final pair of paragraphs are among the most important in the book. The pro-abortion debate tends not to begin from the position "I have two lovely children and I do not want a third -- I would not be as good a mother to them all". It tends to play itself out in an abstract world devoid of real, pre-existent families. The arguments are of course those that Moran puts forward: a woman has an unimpeachable right to decide what happens to her own body, and this supersedes arguments about when life begins. But situating the arguments in the context of an 'already-finished family', and putting forward the idea that it would be bad for the other children, the mother, and the family as a whole, including the father, to supplement with an accident, an unplanned and therefore unwanted baby, that is quite unusual. 

What is shocking about this, to me, is not the decision Moran took, or her reasoning. It is that I have become acutely susceptible to the opinions of others about my own actions. I do not think I could now take the same decision as Moran, not because I think she is wrong -- rationally I agree absolutely with her -- and not because I believe my body would punish me for an abortion. But because I have become afraid of the judgements of other women about my actions relative to the family. 

Abortion is a big subject, but in the end it's not really abortion I am talking about. It is my own capacity to stand up for what I want and believe in, to the same extent as Moran. 

I cannot bear to justify myself, because I do not believe that I should have to. I studied self-justification for four years in a phd, and concluded that self-justification must come to an end, in order for anything else to happen. 

Yet this refusal to justify myself, because self-justification is inherently in bad faith, nevertheless collapses into capitulation to mainstream, conformist and orthodox activity in my own everyday life.

Not actively justifying myself, as I see so many others around me do, does not lead me to greater strength, or greater assertiveness in my actions, or greater peace. 

The radicalism I feel is not translated into action, not because I don't believe in it, but because I am afraid that my personal radicalism might harm my children in some way. Just as people have second children, not because singletons are unhappier than siblings, but because other people assume that they will be, and just as people with disabilities often say that their greatest disability is other people, so I do not live as I wish because of the opinions of others. 

Moran is my heroine. 

Wednesday, 12 September 2012


This morning was another typical Motherload day: children need feeding, clothing, walking — no, driving to school (driving because another of the electric window motors died last night, and must be repaired, at enormous expense, immediately) — doctor's appointment, forms to fill in, car tax to pay, my own work disappearing further and further down the list of priorities.

Suddenly I remembered that my daughter's swim gear was in the boot of the car, now at the garage.

She needs it, of course, tomorrow. We have, of course, received dire warnings from teachers, while perched on tiny chairs in the classroom, feeling awash with memories of childhood admonitions, warnings about Not Forgetting The Swim Gear Or Our Children Will Be Humiliated.

I rush out of the front door to walk to the garage.

On my way I pass a squat object covered in a black bin liner. A notice taped to it reads, "Piano Stool. Please take".

I walk on to the garage, retrieve swim bag, and return past the piano stool. I sit on it. It's sturdy and comfortable. I pull aside part of the bin liner. It is a comforting red velvet, slightly faded. I feel a kind of bubbling joy, I know that it will be hinged, and that we will be able to store music in it. The green silk pattern on the piano stool I used as a child, hammering away talentlessly and dutifully every morning, returns to me. No one else is on the street. I hesitate, then go to the front door and ring the bell.

I know the routine: objects left outside need no thanks or recompense, the owners want to let them go, and want someone else to benefit from them. We did it ourselves the other day with slightly overly used trucks and trikes, faded from sunshine and rain, much loved in their time. They disappeared within a day, and we can see them as we walk to school, in the front garden of a house just down the road. We feel happy every time we pass.

A bosomy lady opened the door, slightly impatient at seeing a stranger. I stumbled over my words, thanking her, saying I felt I had to say something about such a beloved thing as a piano stool. She was, of course, embarrassed, smiled, but wanted to close the door.

I blushed as I walked up the road with my prize.

Never mind. I have carried it home, put felt on each of its feet, filled it with sheet music, an unplayed recorder, and a music bag, sat on it, played the piece my daughter is picking her way through at the moment.

Thank you.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

A good clearout

I have been hysterical for the past few weeks, roughly coinciding with, oooh, the Summer holidays.

There is something terrible about taking a holiday, an enforced holiday, when you have projects on the go, and people you need to keep talking to, for anything to go forward.

Every summer, indeed every few weeks, I am told I need to take a holiday. Not for the good of my health, but for the good of my children and teachers... or rather the agrarian needs the academic calendar is calqued on. Summer holidays = harvest time. You couldn't keep the critters in school, or rather in church, so best invent a holiday for them. Parliamentary and university holidays were built around the same idea. Holy-days invented by the church to work around farming. Not so folk could go and do nothing, but so that we would all have food to eat in the winter.

Given that we no longer live in an agrarian economy, or rather live in a globalized version which basically does away with seasons, why don't we change this? I go completely nuts with a 6-week break, looking after children.

How incredibly selfish of me, of course — I should be squirming with the delight at the thought of strawberry-picking, homemade ice lollies, going to Norfolk (which seems to have become the second home of all of London), glamping, English beaches, picnics, barbecues, the odd trip to a museum, leisurely time in the back garden… put like that, of course it sounds absolutely idyllic.

But in other ways the reality is a sense of glacial numbness descending in the morning as I realize I have absolutely no idea how to structure the empty day rolling ahead, except through repetitions of activities I have been bored by for years now. It is dark nights spent padding around the house, unable to sleep with worry at the thought of books unwritten, living unearnt, pension non-existent.

I have learnt over these last few years of summer holidays with children that, somehow, if I can give myself up to them, the well-worn activities do acquire the lovely nostalgic tinge they probably ought to have had in the first place. And I've learnt that these feelings happen each year at exactly the same time, and so must be, at some level, normal.

Yet somehow, this summer, returning from a trip to see husband's family in Australia, the combined effects of jet lag and middle-summer-stasis brought me to a pitch of despair and depression the like of which I have rarely endured.

Time slowed to a crawling itch of lethargy and wanness. Never had the local library seemed so much like a lifesaver. I couldn't begin to pick up cookbooks and think about Fun Things To Bake With The Children. No one was around — our return coincided inevitably with a mass exodus, as London went on holiday after the Olympics. It was desolate. I actually hugged my son's teaching assistant on the first day of school. Confused and embarrassed she hugged me back, wondering, no doubt, whether I was having some sort of breakdown.

I think I wondered much the same.

And lest the sharp-tongued among my readers whisper "Bad Mother!", all of the above is not to say that I sat around doing nothing with my fair offspring. OF COURSE we did all the things we were supposed to do, parks, museums, day trips to beach, pub suppers, baking, cinema, etc etc etc.

We also upgraded small son to large bed (long-overdue). And deep cleaned the wretched house as same small son came home from long flight with violent asthmatic reaction. This saw me on my knees, toting a hired carpet cleaner, within a week of touching down from the 24-hour flight, buying anti-dust-mite bedding covers, and feeling as if every surface in our house must be filthy, despite all scientific evidence to the contrary. There is nothing like an allergic reaction to make a mother feel she is to blame. Or is that just me? Is it always just me?

In the meantime, all the work on my desk shrivelled away into nothing: book projects, business ideas, clients, confidence, all dehydrated into the same dust I then spent hours hoovering and washing off the floor of our abode.

How is it possible to beat yourself up for turning into a housewife at the very same time that you are frantically trying to address your son's health problems by taking a more intensive approach to the great art of the house cleanse?

I managed to get through what my calendar continues to inform me was ONLY TWO WEEKS until the start of school, with grim determination, an awful lot of shouting, despite best intentions to contrary, writing self-obsessed screeds to a good friend, and emerged into the blissfully quiet air of the new term to find, to my amazement, that equanimity is restored through structure.

How can it be that we long for the unstructured time of holidays, only to be confronted with our deepest anxieties, insomnia, deep-seated anger, and unhappiness about the past, instead of the relaxation, loving intimacy with our families, and adventure that we crave?

Now I am back in that best of months, September, with its promise of golden days before true Autumn, its oddly Springlike memories of fresh starts, and things moving on, and I cannot believe how terrible much of this summer felt. I am immediately plunged back into regret for time lost, wasted on such dark thoughts.

There is just one comforting thought. Perhaps it's possible to include the resurgence of all those gloomy matted emotions during the Summer weeks as part of holiday time. I deep-cleaned the house, and am proud to have done so, it looks great. And I think I may have deep-cleaned my brain by allowing some of my fears back out of their boxes. Although it felt bad, it is true that I can now see them as fears rather than as reality. Reality is something very different, filled with chance events both good and bad, inherently out of my control, to be managed as it comes.

My fears are also out of my control in some ways, exploding as they do at inconvenient times, lurking, ready to pounce. But actually allowing myself to feel them is also evidence of my brain processing and archiving, testing and realigning. Fears need to be looked at every now and then.