Wednesday, 25 December 2013

So this is Christmas

Now, I can hardly complain about Christmas. My former chef husband always cooks an incredible turkey and I baste in his glory. I have been able to leave my mother's warm embrace and step into the brawny waiting arms of a Christmas chef. I have never actually prepared the beast. Even when we lived in Australia — and still ate turkey in 40 degree heat, natch — it was broiled on the Weber by my father-in-law. The day itself is a piece of cake for me, compared with the stress it must cause many people, and those mainly female.

I can remember my mother trotting for years between kitchen and sitting room, under the irritable watery eye of my father, trying to cook and Be There while the presents were opened. Her black patent leather shoes, with the gold buckle and a little heel, were firmly on; a gin and tonic was permanently in hand; she sported a smart red A-line skirt under an apron and a film of worry.

Strange how silence is golden when it comes to the magical preparation of the festive meal. Lots and lots of advice, imprecations and special offers in that ghastly December countdown. But not a word about the way the day itself plays out. People who go from one year's end to the next never roasting a big bird are suddenly expected to be instant experts, and, if they are female, like as not they have also spent the preceding month online shopping, getting out of meetings to attend nativities and concerts, keeping three lists going simultaneously on which hat or bag of satsumas is needed by which child for which school event, often sprung on parents the day before ("Class assembly!", "Christmas Jumper Day!" (I kid you not), "Drumming!", "Choir and Clarinet!"... it's just endless).

Yet after Christmas Day has passed, I have never in my life had a conversation about how stressful the meal was to produce, while supervising present mayhem, enjoining grandparents not to shout at the children, preventing said children from turning on the TV/X-box/iPad, keeping further lists of who gave whom what, etc etc etc.

It's as though all that queuing at post offices for mislaid parcels, all that shoving through supermarkets and department stores, gut-turningly pricey boutiques and online — hoping for the Willy Wonka ticket of a Gift They'll Like — all the laying-in of goodies and wine and vodka, as though the shops will be shut for a month instead of a single day — all the gritty glittery craft passed off as the kids', the leaden mince pies churned out as though for a WI meet, the carol services meant to be gone to but never quite attended, all that… just transmutates into silence.


I am sitting alone at my mother's desk. The children, my husband, my brother and his family have all wandered away to my brother's house, there to watch Wreck-it Ralph, and play with a levitating helicopter toy (my Willy Wonka moment). The door slammed shut behind them over an hour ago.

My mother has tonsillitis and is asleep upstairs. The sitting room is clear of wrapping paper, bows, gift tags, sellotape, instructions, batteries, morsels of chocolate, empty glasses with dregs of Bucks Fizz.

The room is dark except for a table lamp shedding its comforting ellipses of light over the cards and CDs.

The only sound is the hum of the motor powering this computer. The dishwasher has just chirruped to let me know it's finished.

I have never had this Christmas moment before. It will never come again. It was all for this.

And the look on my daughter's face when she gave me her gift, bought and wrapped all by herself.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

I know why she bothers

I Don't Know Why She Bothers has just been published by Daisy Waugh, to join the Mummybook pile. I read it at a couple of sittings, like a bag of sweets in front of Strictly Come Dancing. Nice to gobble, but not particularly nourishing.

I Don't Know Why She Bothers, to be fair, wasn't intended to be a heavy read — its whole raisin d'être is that time is precious, and shouldn't be wasted agonising about one's children. Loving them, yes, but not agonising pointlessly about them.

It's meant as an antidote — the cure of laughing at one's self — to killjoys, health and safety mongers, self-appointed experts, meddlers and misogynists. It's a joy manifesto.

So far so good, I applaud mightily the motivation to write this book. It's important — so important, in fact, that I have been thinking about the same issues for a decade. It's not that Daisy Waugh is wrong — it's that she doesn't go nearly far enough.

The book purports to be motivated by a lunch she attended with a bunch of pompous men, who talked contemptuously about single mothers and how terrible they are, and how they need to be punished. Waugh quite rightly called them out — which among them had ever done more than change a bit of a nappy, she asked them. They simply didn't know what they were talking about.

So she set out to put them right, and to celebrate motherhood in all its messy, hardworking glory. Wonderful, and much-needed.

Except… that isn't the book she's written. The main wellspring of her book is not to celebrate motherhood (or to out the pomposity of men), but to mount a dance of the veiled attack on stay-at-home mothers. The grit in her pearl of maternal happiness is that "they" (all of them?) make it harder for working mothers, by coming up with fatuous child-related activities and then making them insidiously compulsory, through school playground competitiveness, idiotically expensive parties, the importation of American ideas on 'playdates' and 'sleepovers', Motherloaded bitchy comments, and round robin emails that exclude as many as they include.

The author mounts this accusation despite the fact that, as a writer, she must herself be a stay-at-home mother. Or at least a work-from-home mother, for whom the availability boundaries get blurred, a well-known hazard for female writers of childbearing age who aren't Virginia Woolf.

So isn't her attack basically a result of feeling guilty herself? But why would she feel guilty if her defence of joyful working motherhood is true? I wish her book had analysed this incredible form of recessive guilt, which really does afflict women, who are culturally programmed to turn anxiety inwards upon themselves. The lady doth protest too much.

Let me make clear that I am not launching a counterattack of my own on the author — that would be too facile. Mainly because I'm in exactly the same position as she is and so she has my sympathy. I'm just asking a question that her argument begs:

why do women struggle so much with self-imposed guilt? 

In part Daisy Waugh is simply punching a hole into the smug, class-ridden, holier-than-thou views of the affluent, and this definitely needs to be done. However, she is also biting the hand that feeds her — she clearly moves among such people herself, and could choose to live otherwise, and otherwhere.

What's missing for me is that, in her bid to scribble a witty rant, she overlooks the really serious question of the nature of care — what does it mean to care for others, in a competitive, capitalist society? What is the best model of self to mobilise to remain open and empathetic, without being exploited, downtrodden, controlling, suffocating, narrowminded or resentful? Are carers equipped with such a model of self?

The answer, of course, is a resounding NO. Girls and young women (society's future carers, let's not beat about the bush) are, if they are academic, consistently educated away from nurturing, towards 'aspiration', and for very good reasons — they live in a world in which they MUST be economically self-sufficient, precisely because marriage is no longer the only option open to them, and precisely because the caring professions are so poorly remunerated, mothers being paid "child benefit", and that's it, for all the work they do. I wouldn't want that hideous patriarchal world back, not in its Jane Austen form — I'd be in a workhouse by now.

But we should acknowledge that we are currently living with the broken remains of this terrible social model — now women, so the received wisdom goes, have to work AND get married (still apparently preferable to shacking up) in order to have successful lives.

So, not only are the females in our so-called emancipated society trained to crush all maternal feeling throughout childhood and puberty, they are then expected to work as hard as men, for less money, in order to have any hope at all of entering the rigged housing market, and then bear children, provide 80-100% of the care for those children, fund any paid childcare out of taxed income, continue to pay for the crippling mortgage (which is effectively the repository of the UK inflation problem) and be at the beck and call of all of society's institutions, notably the education and health industries.

That's leaving aside the question of sex and shopping.

That's what I Don't Know Why She Bothers should have argued.

There is such a massive publishing glut of Motherpublishing, that it is tempting just to shove I Don't Know Why She Bothers back into its box as facile pap. This, however, would be wrong. Daisy Waugh's book has done women a favour, by brokering a debate, and in that sense it's a trailblazer, an avant-garde vision. Others need to follow, though, and break through this appalling partition of women's estate. 

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Parking in a Disabled Bay

Yesterday Motherload led me to commit a bad thing.

Like that’s unusual.

No, hear me out, this is what happened.

I was running late to collect the children, because I’d been working very hard on something… for the children (go figure). It was pouring with rain, and everyone else had also decided to drive to school. The reason I was increasing the world’s carbon footprint was because we have to get to a swimming lesson within half an hour on a Friday, and the only way we can do it is in the car. 

Plus, frankly, I’m always running late, because I’m always trying to snatch a few seconds extra from the jaws of the playground wasteland. Those futile minutes spent just… waiting around for your children to come out of school, because, these days, you HAVE to be seen by the teacher so that they will release your kid (as otherwise they are bound to be snatched/run over in the gap between the school gate, and your waiting arms). Minutes usually taken up with sub-competitive nonsense with other parents, very few of whom seem to have remembered that a playground is in fact a social space, and not a gladiatorial arena. Or perhaps it’s just me?

Anyhoo, I was late, but the dog had eaten my homework, it was pouring, people were dithering about, the minutes were ticking past, and I could feel that tight band of panic rising in my chest. I saw a space, shoved the car in it, bit my bottom lip and crossed my fingers as I realised it was a disabled parking spot, and ran for the school. We were out, running, within five minutes. I have never parked in a disabled spot in my life. 

You can guess the rest. An irate older man was glaring at me as we raced up. He had arrived seconds after me, needing to drop off the person whose disabled bay it was. As it happens, there is a second disabled bay two spaces down, and so he had parked there. He said, “I’ve taken your number, that’s a £200 fine, you know. I’ve had to use someone else’s bay”. The tight band of panic dissolved into welling tears — I found myself following the man, pleading with him, “I’m so sorry, I would never normally do this, | was late, I had to get the children, it was raining, please believe me, I would never, never do this normally, I was desperate”. He looked at me, could see that a grown woman was about to cry in front of him, and relented, grumbling, “All right, ok”. 

I got back into the car, and sobbed uncontrollably in front of the children, all the way through the wind and traffic, to the wretched pool. 

What on earth made me so upset? I think it was because this unbearably trivial incident triggered the whole long list of other pointless, aggressive driving-and-parking-related incidents that have arisen through living in London with young children. 

I can remember being given a parking ticket, because I stopped the car in driving rain to see whether I was allowed to park at that particular time (I wrote the most furious letter I have ever written, and was graciously excused that one). 

I received a parking ticket for going to a shopping centre with my four-year-old daughter, having lunch with her there, and wandering round the shops, which took us a few minutes over the time the car park had designated ‘normal’ — I’d had no idea there was a limit. It was like being told you could only have your table in a restaurant for one sitting. Not that we go to restaurants any more. Or shopping centres. 

And it’s no better with public transport. There was the famous incident of the bus driver who called the police because I wouldn’t fold my pram, as the bus was half-empty, and my baby was safer in the pram than out of it. Or the time another bus driver rammed on his brakes so hard that she went flying onto her head into the bottom of the bus. Because she wasn’t in a pram… 

Or there’s the complete lack of provision for people with prams on the underground. Often’s the time that I’ve found myself feeling as though having a wheeled contraption automatically places one in the disabled category, whether its occupant is able-bodied or not.

Yet even my list of transport-related ignominies don’t seem really enough to cause what amounted to a flood inside the car as well as outside, at 3.45pm yesterday. 

I think what really made me cry was my shame at being judged to be a bad citizen for taking up the space of a disabled person. Of course I knew I was parking in the wrong place, but I reasoned, as I ran, that it was only for a few minutes, and that surely no one would arrive at that time. They did, and I was caught out. 

I still cried at what felt to me like the injustice of it all — I was racing flat out because I’m trying to be a good citizen all the time, as a parent. I took a risk which amounted to a five-minute felony, at school pick-up time. The man must have known that we were right by a school at 3.30pm, which is why there were no other spaces. 

He too had the choice not to react as he did, which was just to lash out at me with a hostile blanket judgement and a threat, without any understanding of the context. Clearly he barked at me because this must happen to him all the time, and for him, the injustice to his client is greater than the injustice done to an able-bodied woman, always in a rush because of the demands placed on her. 

Ultimately I was crying because I was ashamed that I had cried in order to move a man out of his snap judgement. I wasn’t consciously trying to manipulate him with my “womanly emotions”, it all happened much too quickly for that (the whole encounter couldn’t have lasted a minute, and we still got to swimming on time). I just reacted exactly as I felt — desperate. But that’s what it must have looked like from the outside, just as I must have looked like a nasty, pushy middle-class mother, doing anything for her kids, to hell with anyone else, by parking in a disabled bay. 

My tears shamed him into relenting. I had to make a visible, visceral display of my sincerity in order to win him over. 

I felt like Shylock. 

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The democratic republic of childhood

Last night saw Showdown at our house.

The usual story… a long day culminated in a bout of dinnertime naughtiness, then the barked order to, "Go upstairs and get ready for bed right now," then extended stubborn refusal, pushing, crying, howling, screaming, and me with my fingers in my ears and my eyes shut, willing it all to go away.

It wasn't pretty. I didn't feel good for my Show Of Authority. The children were particularly outraged and irked, because their punishment was coterminous with not having apple crumble. They insisted that they had in no way been naughty, that they had, "just been laughing", and they wanted a recount. There was a tearful, fruitless, appeal to the Father, working upstairs. Eventually they gave up, and retreated to the silence and darkness of their lairs.

I held firm. To my ears. I sat, catatonic, at my desk, pretending to sort out chores.

Half an hour passed.

My husband finished the work he was doing, gave me a look, and left for a party.

I trailed downstairs to the kitchen to look mournfully at the burnt apple crumble.

A rush of four bare feet paddled down behind me, four warm hands clutched me, two fervent apologies were breathlessly issued.

Followed closely by, "Can we have crumble now?"

We ended up, double helpings of crumble and chocolate custard later, in bed, reading Octonauts and Horrible Histories, with two hot water bottles and roughly six bears. We all fell asleep there, me fully clothed.


Today we all tried to talk about what had happened. We'd had a good afternoon out. There was nothing terribly wrong, apart from my fatigue, which is pretty permanent. Repeated table manner admonishment is the norm, not the exception, in our house — you'd think I'd be used to it.

Why did I decide that then and there was the moment absolute authority had to be established, and through a punitive order which would deprive them of something they were expecting? Because I'd had it.

I know exactly what the Expert Parenting Authorities will say to me: "But you have allowed negotiation in the past, and so the children do not understand when you suddenly decide to lay down the law. It's YOUR fault."

If I were an absolutist tyrant every night, would the children be using their table manners perfectly by now, while loathing me? Yes. Yes they would. I know that for an experiential fact.

Will the approach of patient (all right, semi-patient) grumpiness, dessert-based bribery, and eye-rolling reiteration take longer, but result in good manners by the time they leave the family home? My goodness, I hope so. 

To me, the family is a democracy not a tyranny, in which the children should get a vote on certain policies. The adults retain prime ministerial veto: we manage the budgets, and won't permit filibustering; I run the Education and Healthcare departments. Actually, I run all the departments, and there have been severe cutbacks to the Civil Service of late. But the children engage in parliamentary debate where they can. And they should, otherwise what are they learning about authority?

Of course I know the difference between being authoritative and being authoritarian. Of course I rein in the children's behaviour and manner when they become too raucous, or when they are downright rude or disrespectful. And of course sometimes I've had enough, and deploy the police force. Negotiation has its place. So does the ultimatum.

One of the reasons parenting is so exhausting is precisely because every situation is emotionally subtly different, even if there is a high degree of structural overlap (the Witching Hours/table manners fisticuffs/making them get in the bath/wash their hair/brush it/do their teeth/homework etc etc). The children found my decree absolute so unfair because we'd had a good day, and they can't read my increasing impatience and annoyance, which is based on my exhaustion. They don't know that my local frustration, while caused by their behaviour, is amplified by my own relentless feelings of frustration, pulsing round my head. When I'd finally had it, and ordered them upstairs to bed, it came from nowhere as far as they were concerned.

Having said this, I'm certainly not saying any of this to imply that I'm a bad mother, or shouldn't have done what I did. On the contrary: they did need to be sent to bed. Their behaviour was grim. And after their outrage had abated, and they had had a think about events, they decided that an apology was in order. Once they had acknowledged that they had been out of line, I apologised for shouting, and we patched things up.

No one said democracy is easy. That's why it's important to defend it.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Girls don't wanna have fun

A friend made a very intriguing comment this morning. Our children are going away for a five-day outward bound trip, and we stood in the October playground, acorns and condensation dropping on our heads, watching them try to unpack their rucksacks before they'd even boarded the coach.

I was encouraging my friend to go out every night while her child is away, and take the chance to reconnect with her partner. She said, "But I find it really hard to go out if everything's not done, I'm not sure if I can actually do that any more".

We looked at each other, she, a highly intelligent, senior civil servant, and published author, working full time, me… in my yoga gear, and nodded. After a decade of clearing up, we have gradually been worn down until neither of us can face "dropping everything and going out for the fun of it", simply because of what will be waiting for us when we get back home.

Now… is this being adult, depressed or a drudge? Which is it? I never thought I would be happier in bed at 9.30pm with a book (sometimes earlier, sometimes actually falling asleep while reading to the children). In fact I did everything I could to carry on partying long after most of my peers had sorted out careers and regulated their hours. I'm not content with my cloistered nunnery, and would in theory rather be out at gallery openings, theatres, and dinner parties — but when those things actually come along, they are so difficult to organize (babysitters, clearing up, planning following day), and usually so expensive, that I have come to duck out of and avoid them as worse than being at home.

Neither of us has slacker men, so this is not a fifty-fifty whine. This has to do with acceptance. The reality of my life, with its tight time parameters, endless amounts of piffling detail, daily Hedda Gabler performances from both children, and dwindling resources on every level, is difficult to avoid. It is composed of little else but obstacles, challenges and puzzles to solve. They aren't interesting, I'm bored stupid by the repetition, and frequently want to scream. And do. I have to invent mind games to prevent complete mental shutdown. Reminding myself that I chose this doesn't particularly help.

Yet fighting that reality is even less worthwhile than going with it, trying to swim. And "leaving the washing up and going out" is actually a fight rather than a pleasure 99% of the time, with a nasty payback in increased workload.

My house is not spotless. My kitchen is not clean. I do not sweep behind the fridge. This is not about being a Dutch housewife, as my father used to say when mum fussed. I get my kicks in other ways, stealing time in the day, running off to yoga when I should be writing, savouring coffee in my kitchen, baking, deliberately ignoring pointless instructions from school, subverting the homework on creationism by telling my son about the Big Bang, and pointing out that Jews and Christians share the same creation myth, subverting the AQA French A level syllabus by introducing a sixteen-year-old to Candide rather than l'environnement, watching his face light up when he realizes Voltaire has just made a joke about fat women…

When I was working eighty hours a week as an academic, I would never have dreamt of writing a blog post about whether or not to go out. I'm reading this back now, thinking, "this is the most boring post in the world, I have turned into a middle-aged frump, and I call this acceptance and happiness? What is wrong with me? Fight the power, woman!"

Perhaps what I'm trying to say is that happiness has turned out — for me — to be an inwardly-directed energy, which is actually disrupted by too much external stimulation. How odd that this discovery has coincided with staying in with the European washing mountain.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Great Expectations

A good friend of mine was having coffee round at my place this morning. She and I have often talked in the past about having children, whether or not to, and what it means not to have children.

She described how a close friend with children said to her this summer, "I won't be able to see you 'til September". I was incredulous — until I thought about my own behaviour: I, too, duck into the trenches over the summer weeks, mainly because I don't have childcare, partly because everyone seems to go away, and sometimes we do too, and, with regard to single or childfree friends, I somewhere make the assumption that they won't want to see me with my pesky kids.

But my friend today made it clear that it was she who felt excommunicated. "Why does she think I wouldn't want to see her children?" my friend said. I think that, after years of interrupted conversations, I know the answer: her friend wants to have a peaceful chat, and knows she won't get it until the kids are back at school, so has given up forcing the situation, and just manages it instead. For my friend without children, the unit of time is the hour, possibly the minute. For her Motherloaded friend, it is the week. Summer is 6 units (8-9 if you go private).

What struck me in this anecdote is the translation problem between women about children. Mothers have to think in childtime, and women without kids can continue to think in both calendar and subjective time. Locked onto their respective islands, they develop different discourses — and are then surprised and hurt when they can no longer quite understand each other's culture.

My friend very astutely raised the issue of 'expectations'. She, a child of the first generation of liberated women, like me, was brought up to expect equality with men, to expect to succeed through her own hard work and a good education. She, like me, has come to grapple with an amorphous, tentacular monster, which has interposed itself between us and our 'expectations'.

We can make some statements about this monster, tricky as it is to locate in everyday life.

  • Firstly, true social equality between men and women has not been achieved. 
  • Secondly, equality between women has not been achieved and is constantly under threat. 
  • Thirdly, that monster has a name: it is reproduction. 

Women's liberation was achieved largely through access to contraception. A new kind of imprisonment has descended in the twenty-first century, however, through turning 'choice' into 'judgement'. Women don't 'choose' to have children — they only think they do, or think their choice is private, and then they find that they are being judged, often viciously, on whether they have kids or not, and how 'well' they are managing the 'juggle'. If they are not juggling, they are judged to be (i) negligent or (ii) underachieving. What fresh hell is this?

This afternoon, I was teaching Dickens's Great Expectations. It reminded me that Pip's expectations are not innate, but cultural. When he is introduced to Miss Havisham and the coldhearted, snobbish Estelle, the excruciating discovery of his own lowliness, mixed with his desire for Estelle's affection, catalyses a longing for social mobility.

Yet he would never have conceived such expectations had he not been rejected because of his social position: "what would it signify to me, being coarse and common, if nobody had told me so!" This inchoate longing is then unexpectedly given fuel when Pip is given money to become a 'gentleman'.

Miss Havisham, on the other hand, has nothing but expectations and wealth. Her spooky spider-webbed stasis is the result of another kind of rejection: being left at the altar. Miss Havisham started off having it all (under patriarchy), and assumed that life would go on giving her everything to which she was entitled. Her expectations seemed natural to her. Her shock on discovering, unexpectedly, publicly, that 'having it all' is not enough, catalyses immobility. She cannot let go of her expectations, they are too deeply intertwined with her very identity, and she remains imprisoned within them.

The narrative of Great Expectations traces a very nineteenth-century moral arc: social ambition resolves into exposure of the world's emptiness and a renewed truce with humility.

That's all very well when we're talking about Pip.

Imagine my surprise to realize that I have been playing the part of Miss Havisham. I have been arthritic with anger and disappointment, for a long time, about what happens to women's careers after they have children.

I can only hope that I am moving in a more Pip-like direction.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Harriet Harman on Woman's Hour

Harriet Harman gave a lovely answer this morning when pressed on why she didn't run for leadership of the Labour Party:
I actually... still... wanted something else of my life outside the Party.
She had just been discussing the paucity of women in Parliament (even as Thatcher was Prime Minister); the fact that fewer than 1000 men have taken up maternity leave if women want to return to work within a year of giving birth; the notion of transferring unused leave to mothers and mothers-in-law (although these people are likely to be working to reduce the earnings deficit they themselves suffered through having a family); and finally she had slipped in the old chestnut that women are still tearing their hair out looking for affordable, flexible, reliable childcare.


Because apparently no one, however much they believe in equality, can ever bring themselves to imagine men "looking for childcare". That, apparently, is intrinsically, inherently, BIOLOGICALLY part of a mother's role and duty. What? Why? Since when? Why and how did I slip into that trap, just as everyone else I know did? From pregnancy to labour, to breastfeeding, to looking for childcare. If the mother isn't doing it, apparently it's her job to find a replacement for herself. What price the notion of the FAMILY?

But I digress. What I'd love to know is what Harman was referring to as 'something else'? Cleaning the toilets? Having massages? Doing an MA? Picking up dry cleaning? It's hard to understand.

A friend of mine has been approached to be a Chair of Governors at her local primary school, but has two children under 7. She feels very flattered but very torn. She would also like to ramp up her working life again, but really wants to be there for her children.

I took on chairing a governing body when my kids were 7 and 4. I was also working full time, and taking on lecturing and consulting work. I tried to cycle to work and would arrive sweating and furious from the traffic. I was exhausted all the time, and always angry. My situation at work suffered, and my situation at home was antagonistic. I lost sight of my daughter -- I don't remember anything about her year 3. I was never there to drop off our son, and as a consequence have never found my feet amongst the parents of his class. I missed the period when you learn names and have that frenzy of play dates.

To me this is another example of Motherload. Why did I feel I had to prove myself in this way? My friend would make a fantastic Chair. But instead of accepting that as a fact, and moving on, she feels under pressure both internally and externally to justify why she should NOT go for it. Her reason is her children, and her ambivalence comes from the extreme polarisation of views on the worth of looking after children as an activity. Should she take up public office, give back to the community, use her skills and gifts for the public good, secure some public standing for herself, fit in the childcare, it doesn't matter, children are resilient?

Yes, on one level, and of course, those are the reasons I gave myself. But I and those I loved suffered because of my need to justify myself to different communities. See! I can have it all! See? I CAN do it all! Chairing a governing body is unpaid but takes up about 1-2 days a week, depending on what issues arise in the school, and how active you want to be. 1-2 days done at night or in the early morning, on top of a day job.

But women in my friend's position are being asked to brush under the carpet the rather important fact that they are ALREADY in public life. They are raising children, another unpaid public role, for which they are held accountable by everyone from the bus driver to the prime minister. I WAS a chair of governors, and I DID enjoy the role. But it came at a price. The cost was time that I will never have again with my two children, and a bruised relationship with them which has needed time to heal.

We need to lighten our Motherloads by accepting and celebrating everything that we already do, rather than taking it for granted as everyone else does, and expecting ourselves just to take on more and more.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Preparing for the 11+

This week my daughter sat an 11+ exam for a grammar school in our area.

We stood outside at 7am, in the biting September cold. No one spoke to anyone else. Everyone clutched their daughters. We had got up at 5.30am.

The staff called out, "All right, we're going to take your girls in now". Their voices took me, in a heartbeat, to the moment late in the night after I had given birth to my daughter, when a nurse told me, "All right, we're going to take her away and give her formula".

I wanted to push her aside, run into the hall and take the damn test myself. You know it has to happen, you've got this far, and you know/pray/hope she's going to be OK, but you are being left behind, and others are going to have possession of your vulnerable child. Who knows what they are going to do to her? My husband was away while it happened, and, in his panic, ended up shouting at me that I hadn't prepared her enough.

Three hours later, she came out smiling, joking about how hard it was. 

After a while, she nonchalantly told me some other things, that made me hold her very tight. 

We went shopping. As a rule, I loathe shopping, but it was all I wanted to do. We were euphoric, almost high, after she was released. Watching her as she carefully chose each sweet in her pick and mix. Watching her as she selected her items for her lunch. Watching her as she inspected herself in the mirror in new flowery jeans. Letting her make her decisions, even though I didn't agree with them, because what I'd just asked her to do shouldn't be imposed on children of 10. I found I couldn't even bear to ask her what was on the test.

Our decision to encourage/push her to try for an impossibly difficult grammar school (1800 applicants, 93 places, 140 minutes of testing, only the top 500 candidates even get through to the second round of marking) was born out of many things. In the main, however, it was born out of the relentless media and Govean pressure to look at our local schools as though they are constantly failing, regardless of their results, teachers, or the kids who go there day in, day out, and work their little socks off. The endless social pressure coming from the press, teachers, government, other parents to doubt your own intelligence, and assume that all your choices and decisions are wrong. These people never go into schools, have never taught, only look at databases of digitized results and make sweeping claims based on misreadings.

Our local schools are very good. There is no need to put our children through this absurd testing, in which the maths questions are based on the whole of the Year 6 maths curriculum, although the test is sat at the very start of Year 6, and it's assumed that the standard is Level 6 (the national average is Level 4 by the end of primary school).

So — if I think it's absurd, bordering on cruel, to put a child through this, why did I do it?

I don't have a justification. All I have is my anger and defiance, that come from my ridiculous dream of giving my children what I had.

I sat an 11+ style entrance exam for a fee-paying girls' school in Norfolk, and I can still remember enjoying it. Lovely! A test in which they wanted me to show off what I could do! Hooray. No one had heard of tutors — they were what the children of the 18th century landed gentry had. I remember doing some verbal reasoning questions in booklets my mother sheepishly thrust at me, and loving them. I got a place at the school, and really loved my time there. Yes, my parents paid good money for it, but nowhere near what school fees have now become. They did it on one income.

But in 2013, and since our daughter was born back in 2003, parents are surrounded by an uninterrupted stream of consciousness, fretting on about our failures, negligence, laziness. We are constantly told that we are feeding our children the wrong food, buying them too much of the wrong toys, that we're not supportive enough at home, that we're not supportive enough at school, that we let them laze around in the holidays, that we aren't saving enough for their future, that we don't spend enough on tutors to get them into the "top" schools, that they aren't doing enough activities, that they are doing too many activities, that mothers of school-age children aren't working hard enough to bring in enough money, that they worked too hard in the pre-school years… endless, endless dirge of excoriation and failure.

At the Open Day, the grammar school cautioned against tutoring, as though our girls were going to flower like Rousseauean children of nature into ovenready test candidates. We all stared steadily back at the Headteacher. Game on. We all knew everybody else would be hunting down tutors.

My response?

Reader, I became one. Not to my daughter (we spit at each other if we even mention the word 'addition' in each other's company), but to other children and teenagers. My only defence against the remorseless attack on childhood and learning constituted by the 11+ —or rather the monster it has become — is to try to teach my students to love what they are reading and writing. The only way I could cope with the fact that my daughter went to a tutor was to have the personal satisfaction of helping other students see the point of what they were doing.

I am a subversive tutor. My students get A*s because they start to enjoy French and English. Suck on that, Mr Gove.

Just to add a further poetic twist, my mother, who grew up in the area we happen to have ended up in, went to the same school at which my daughter sat that 11+.

In her day, just after the war, it was grammar school or slag heap. Her primary school drilled those children in the exam for two terms before she took it. She still cries when she thinks of fellow classmates who didn't get through.

My daughter's primary school, on the other hand, wouldn't even acknowledge that she was preparing to try, or encourage her or us. There wasn't a single word of encouragement. She did everything alone, as did I — I just didn't want to face the discussions, possible objections, or worst of all, insinuations that I was 'pushy'.

Thank goodness, she is, despite it all, still reading, writing and drawing away quite happily. Long may she do so.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Living with illness

This week I was contacted by a lady called Heather from the States, who has been living with cancer for the past seven years.

She asked me to put a link to her awareness campaign on my blog. She has a rare form of cancer which is contracted through exposure to asbestos fibres.

She was diagnosed incredibly soon after having a baby, and given a poor prognosis. Wanting to live for her child has kept her focused on seeking treatment and looking after herself:
I am a wife, mother, and a mesothelioma survivor. When my daughter was 3 ½ months old, I was diagnosed with this rare and deadly cancer, and given 15 months to live. Despite my grim prognosis, I knew that I needed to beat the odds for my newborn daughter, Lily. It’s been 7 years now and I feel that it’s my duty to pay it forward by inspiring others. In honor of upcoming Mesothelioma Awareness Day (September 26), I want to use my personal story to help raise awareness of this little known cancer, and to provide a sense of hope for others facing life’s difficult challenges. I would love it you would help me spread awareness by sharing the campaign page on your blog so hopefully your readers will participate! My goal is 7,200 social media shares - your support will help get me there!
I wish I had something hilarious, clever, life changing to say. All I know is that I know too many women and mothers who have had to face different cancers. I have learnt so much from each of them, about fortitude, true drive, humour, and how extremely precious life is.

How little most of the stuff we worry about really matters.

Friday, 13 September 2013

First Motherload Moment of the New School Year

I spent a lot of time at our children's school today.

First up was a class assembly. One of my children is entering her final year of primary school, and a mother pointed out that this will be their last class assembly before they leave. Class assemblies, for the uninitiated, involve three weeks of daily rehearsals, a worthy topic spiced up with some in-jokes, and a Friendship Song. If it was going to be their last, the involuntary parental sobbing quotient was instantly ratcheted up to 'Full On' before they even started.

Not aided by my daughter's Special Dream, so innocently voiced as part of the assembly: "I would like to do well in my exams and get into [insert names of local hard to get into schools]".

I'm not sure if there actually was an audible gasp, or whether it was just the rush of blood to my head as I watched my child tell 700 people what she really really wanted (along with 1800 other little girls). I'm not sure how often I have genuinely not known whether to laugh or cry, but let me tell you there were tears creeping out behind my glasses, of the kind one exudes upon eating a very hot chilli pepper.

After lunch came the Australian BBQ. The children are studying 'Australasia' this year. I am laying odds on a screening of Finding Nemo either as well as or instead of science -- a view strengthened by the topic for RE this term: 'Why might creation stories be important?'

Anyway, the staff thought it would be lovely to hold an Authentic Barbie, with the children in Beach Gear, and all the parents stopping by to enjoy.

As we don't live in Australia, and it's September, there was quite high chance of rain stopping play. It duly did. So, the teachers, in their wisdom, decided to hold the event in a small hall.

Picture the scene. A hot, damp room. Ninety children cutting out a cat's head they'd been assured was a wombat, stapling it to a paper plate with one stapler between all of them, accompanied by thumping music. Double that number of parents standing around, stepping on toddlers, and glueing their coats to the tables, without a clue what to do and why they were there.

The children screeched and bellowed their way through colouring in their WomCats, and were then supposed to write interesting questions about Australia on yellow postcards. My son was so distracted by the fact that Mummy was there that he didn't actually complete the job. When I thought it would be better if I left to let him get on, of course he burst into tears.

When we got home, the Freeview box for our telly broke down.

So let's see now: in my bid to be the best mother I can be, I no longer have a career, or even a normal job, and so can't replace the Freeview box. And in my bid to be the best mother I can be, I sat and watched one poor child expose her heartfelt dreams to the entire community, and therefore out me as a pushy Tiger mother, and then spent an hour watching my other child and 89 of his closest friends cut out Australasian cats.

Now that's Motherload.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Having one's cake

Yesterday I made a glutinous Banoffee Pie for the first time in my life, so sweet that my son actually failed to finish it.
The Banoffee Pie

There's been a theme to desserts recently:

(1) we've had some;

(2) they've all been baked, brown and packed with sugar.

The Salted Fudge
After we came home from a brill 1970s stylee driving across Europe holiday (all 2700 miles of it, mostly un-air-conditioned, once we'd realized how much fuel aircon uses, and how pricey Italian petrol is), I felt the need to end August with a violent burst of baking.

Suddenly, the dormant bread machine was mobilized, and produced streams of chewy pitta bread, and white loaves with glorious tanned muffin tops to match my own.

We'd spent all our money on French motorway tolls, so I immediately reverted to type, and behaved as if we were in the Second World War, except with bananas. Out came the houmous recipe, and we all had to suffer through weeks of dubious chunky chickpea spread.
The Child Labour

Earlier in the summer, we had gone fruitpicking at a nearby farm (another of my idealistic faux-retro 'let's get the children in touch with nature' whimsies).

After a lovely time plucking berries in the open air, we got to the checkout, and were promptly charged FIFTY-NINE POUNDS for the pleasure.

We are now breakfasting on the world's most expensive homemade jam, and the freezer is full of raspberries. It's all very well striving to maintain one's stay-at-home, kept woman, Earth Mother credentials, but it's bone-crushingly expensive! Not only can I not keep up with the Joneses (because I haven't got a job), I can't even keep up with my fruit payments.

Thusly, with my wartime helmet on, I set about making industrial numbers of raspberry muffins, a Shaft-height Victoria Sponge, and banana bread — with raspberries. You get the picture. And if you don't, here's a picture:

The Bouncing Victoria Sponge,
with handpicked raspberries, natch
At one point we had, I think, four alternative desserts on the go at the same time: salted fudge, shortbread, muffins and cake.

Now, however, the tan has faded, it's already the second week of term, and not only have I not stopped baking, I am actually building it into my day as religiously as… religion. I am on a roll. 

Unfortunately, the roll is also on me. In a confused attempt to start as I mean to go on, I have also been doing obsessively large quantities of fitness classes. This, given the sheer tally of dessert-related calories I've been consuming, hasn't produced the results I might have hoped for. 

Never have I been more plumply Goddesslike, as I swan from Yogalattes to the baking section of the supermarket, wondering if I have finally lost my mind. 

But it's all right, I know what's wrong. 

I'm supposed to be writing a book. 

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Summer Tutoring

Radio 4 Woman's Hour was getting all steamed up this morning about the social rights and wrongs of tutoring children during the school holidays. "Socially divisive", "giving the posh kids an extra leg up they don't need", "impossible demands placed on young shoulders", etc etc.

According to some amongst us, children turn into vegetables during those precious few weeks of summer, and need to be kept nose to grindstone lest they forget how to spell, punctuate, do times tables and stand still in the lunch queue.

I've been tutoring children and young people from 11 to 18 years old for the past few years, and it's completely changed my views on what tutoring actually is.

In the summer holidays, most of my tutees stop, unless they are preparing for a selective entrance exam that's going to come up early in the next academic year. These poor souls have to keep going, yes.

I find it next to impossible to force my own poor children to do any official work in the summer. Quite rightly, they run a mile. They really are tired of school after a whole academic year of it, and need the down time.

However the local library is running its usual Reading Challenge, which has exposed the fact that my son actually likes reading (it can't last) and will sit and do it all by himself now. One element of the Challenge involved writing a 'spine-tingling poem'. So he did, and then added a picture of a bloody severed hand for good measure. I looked on, incredulous. He never did that during the school year.

Today the children demanded to go to Beanotown, because they'd spotted this event at the South Bank in some issue of the comic. It turned out to include a room full of comfy seats and beanbags, floor to ceiling rows of books, comics and annuals, and a huge table covered in more annuals, paper and pens for drawing. They had to be dragged away.

Both Reading Challenge and Beanotown were absolutely free. I struggle to think of better ways to get children reading, writing and drawing.

In the tutoring I do, I have come to realize that all kinds of families and children would like extra support. For some, the curriculum is dull, and they are able, but losing motivation. Others have started to struggle in secondary school, perhaps because of gaps from primary school learning, and are losing confidence. I've tutored some of the most able students I've ever encountered — and told them repeatedly that they do not need a tutor. These brilliant young people come from the state and the private sector. They want to be stretched further than A level demands.

Most of what I do in actually teaching involves building a strong relationship with the students, trying to understand what motivates them as individuals, what their academic strengths are, and then relating language-learning or English to those strengths. This involves more listening than talking, and we work pretty slowly. They say they like it. I like to think they make progress. Their families seem happy with my somewhat unorthodox approach, which I make no secret about.

One of the unexpected benefits and pleasures of tutoring is getting to know the students' families, and there is no predominant pattern in which socio-economic group is seeking tutoring. Some are well off, other families are making a considerable outlay.

As far as I'm concerned everyone would benefit from one to one tutoring — after all, isn't that why supervisions and tutorials are still held up as being the best teaching system in the world at Oxford and Cambridge?

As for tutoring through the summer? Put up a hammock or a tent, take a book outside, keep a scrapbook, take photos, find some free local events to go to. Make your kids do the cooking, and count the change from shopping. That should keep them ticking over.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Cover up

This morning on the BBC — modesty bags for lads' mags! Brilliant. The Co op is asking the people who publish Loaded, Nuts and the other boys' peep show titles to put bags over their product, to protect the innocence of children coming into the shops.

Feminista wants to go further, campaigning for an outright ban on these magazines. Their argument is that the Co op is still aiming to make money out of lads' mag culture — the fig leaf of a plastic bag is just a way to get around the profit hit it would otherwise take.

What's the real problem, of which lads' mags are the pathetic symptom? Girls are sent the message, "sex is dirty and you are dirty if you do it — aren't you?", while boys are sent the message, "sex is dirty and girls are dirty if they do it — here, have a little look". Queen Victoria would have been proud.

Seems to me that putting a doggy bag over a soft porn mag is a bit like men telling women they have to wear burkhas to protect their modesty, because men are just unable to control their own desires.

So what's the solution? To me, this is an area that needs action from two ends (as it were).

On the one hand, parents and teachers have a fantastic opportunity to help children cope with their own sexual development in a healthy way, avoiding shame, and showing children what love looks like. Sex is an extraordinary means of understanding how mysterious and delicate other people are. You don't want to get rid of sex.

On the other, the State (us) has a powerful role to play in gradually ousting porn from the public arena until, like smoking, it is something you don't want to do any more because you have to stand outside in the cold to do it. Seen in that light, no, the Co op doesn't go far enough, but it is a step in the right direction, because it might encourage other retailers to follow suit, which might lead the State to step up.

In the meantime we could focus on the other problem with newsagents: why do they display loads of sweets at children's eye level?

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Royal Baby

The other day, my daughter and I were standing in line at a supermarket, idly waiting for the man in front to get an assistant to check the price of his pâté, have an argument about it, and then decide not to buy it.

Our eyes, as we idled, fell upon the obligatory magazine stand. It was crammed with celebrity gossip mags screeching about the forthcoming Royal Birth. My daughter read out, "Kate: My Worries About Whether I'll Be a Perfect Mum! Royal Pair: Will and Kate Already Planning Number Two! Duchess: Too Posh to Push? Kate Says She's Worried About Losing Her Figure!"

Actually, I can't quite recall the wording, but you get the idea. Royal Babymania, to crown the summer of British Sporting success. Murray! Tour de France! Ashes! Rugby! Parturition!

My daughter, bless her, and no doubt because she is being brought up by the world's most argumentative mother, was horrified and incredulous. "She hasn't even had the baby yet!" she shrieked, looking around to see whether others shared her consternation. The sounds of the British public, gently chewing cud as they waited patiently in line (me included), were all that met her social critique. That's my girl.

I found myself wondering this morning exactly what the Duchess of Cambridge's birth story was like. How many people were present in the room? Did anyone check the warming pan to see if a changeling had been smuggled in? Was she allowed to give birth naturally? Was she allowed to ask for her gynaecologist of choice? Why did a man deliver the baby?

It was rather touching to know that the Duke and Duchess behaved "as any normal parents would do". They spent time with their newborn before issuing the press release, they phoned their folks first, they spent the night in hospital together (actually, that's not normal, on the NHS, partner has to go home for that first excruciating night…).

The baby boy, of course, will no more have a normal life than I am the Pope. However, it is interesting to see what the privileged do about pregnancy, maternity and parenting, because it allows us to think about the way in which all of us are exposed to public scrutiny when we have babies. Kate Middleton should be knighted simply because she has endured a pregnancy in the public eye and produced a lovely healthy baby despite it all. She's obviously superwoman.

I wonder how long it will be before the Royal breastfeeding debate kicks off? And how long will Kate take off before she goes back to work? How will she juggle childcare vouchers? Will she go nanny or nursery? Part time or full time? Will she manage to lose that baby weight quickly enough? Will she smack?

Will she be happy?

Wednesday, 10 July 2013


And now this.


This is a very clever title for a very upsetting debate.

The way it's framed is particularly saddening: if a woman doesn't have children, what value does she have, and indeed, does she have any?


Of COURSE a woman, like any other person, or animal, or flower, has value, simply by existing.

OK, evil people, flowers and animals have perhaps less value, and usually do more damage.

Value — now there's a word. What on earth does it mean to "have value"? In economic terms, it means "be tradeable". I'm not sure that that's what the Mumsnot debate means. After all, women have been traded for centuries, and it's usually the idea that they're not virginal that prompts the idea of their loss of value. When did tradability shift to the post-partum female?

And who is assigning that value? It used to be men, on the basis of dowry or chattels. What is it now? An index of male fertility, or capacity to entrap and keep a female? Or, horror, is it what women themselves are now using as a literal matrix of self-evaluation?

Matrix: from Latin, female animal used for breeding, parent plant, from matr-, mate

Here's the deal.

A woman, with or without children, has value.

Just has value.

It is self-evaluation that does so much harm.

Evaluation implies measurement against established norms. But there aren't any with motherhood. We aren't just defined by the groups we notionally fall into. We aren't defined at all except at the point of death, when it all comes to an end. Until then we are in permanent flux and emergence. The notion of 'value' that Mumsnot is talking about is purely comparative, purely social. It leaves out of account the richness of all life, reducing it to two categories: reproductive or not.

I aspire never to be defined by having had children. They passed through me, and I was a vessel, an agent. I was changed in bearing them, but the same problems I had had before having children still beset me afterwards. Mumsnot isn't the issue — it's like saying Dietnot, or Mortgagenot, or Faceliftnot. What's really under discussion is how extraordinarily difficult it is to be happy.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Home schooling, the finale

Well lookie here, this is turning into a sign from the universe. Apparently home schooling IS the way forward.

After our son's raucous 7th birthday party on Sunday (007 spy party, held on 07/07, d'you see?), at his school, we headed home, sweaty, laden with parcels almost certainly containing Lego, and thought no Moore of spy parties.

Come Monday morning, lo, a burst water main had closed the school! Out of the blue, on a glorious summer day, the children had NO SCHOOL.

Coupled with the planned teacher training day the Friday before, this amounted to an unexpected long weekend, at least from the children's point of view. What luck!

Hmmm. What was Mother to do. Options options:

1. Complain to the Council. No point, it's Haringey.
2. Go home and complain to the husband. No point, he's trying to earn our mortgage.
3. Shout at the kids. Tempting, but not really fair.
4. Turn on the television. The weather's too nice.
6. Let the children do as they wish. Unthinkable.
7. I know, allow son to open all presents, construct all Lego (maths, physics). Crack out the thank you cards from the party (writing practice). Force daughter to make Greek Musical Instrument out of pasta, glue, cardboard, enamel paint and masking tape from painting the front door the other day (homework, DT). Then force daughter to do, not one, but two maths practice papers, and then force her to go over the corrections (HAH! Maths). Then let her go and do some reading and writing (she likes it). 

I think that's everything covered.

We even went to the library, although I had to leave minutes later, once I'd inhaled and thereby used up the last remnant of oxygen in the place (Haringey).

And do you know, I EVEN went to yoga, and taught two classes. THIS is what is meant by home working.

I'm looking for the problems in the above, but I can't actually find any. It was a blissful day. All of us were at home, we all worked symbiotically with each other, no one shouted. IT'S THE TRUTH AND THE WAY. The whole of Western civilization is predicated on a lie! We don't need schools! We just need both parents working from home, slightly unfulfilled, and a lot of Bond papers.

I'll let you know when I've worked out what the downsides are.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Two parenting metaphors

What am I learning about modern parenting?

Two things.

1. Legoland — a metaphor for alienation.

2. Race for Life — a metaphor for frustrated ambition.

Let me explain.

Marx (and I paraphrase) felt that people were being alienated from the means of production of things like food and clothing. Instead they went to work in mines, cities and factories, were paid money and then had to commute home to give this money to their families, to pay for things. They seemed to be gaining autonomy, but were actually losing control over their lives. This was in the sense of the overall arc of those lives, their destinies (getting work started to depend on your education rather than, say, farming your own bit of land). It was also at the level of day-to-day human pleasure (growing your own tomatoes; making your own shirts). He thought this as England's green and pleasant land was overrun by factories during the 19th century. The rest of us called it the Industrial Revolution.

You can understand much of Marx by reading Dr Seuss's The Lorax. Or perhaps this is why my paraphrase is so fantastically loose.

What does this have to do with modern parenting and Legoland, I hear you snore?

Well, under late capitalism, i.e. in a era in which we support the banking sector to prevent social disintegration, without regulating the banking sector to prevent social disintegration, we have handed over control over all kinds of other aspects of our lives.

For instance: how to entertain ourselves.

We used to have hoops and sticks. Now we have (to have) Legoland.

Legoland is a realization of what we might otherwise imagine. It is the incarnation of something that could have remained fantasy, or child's play, had it not been built quite so solidly. Legoland, in becoming real, ends itself. To be real, Legoland would have had to remain insubstantial. In becoming bricks and mortar, it has entered the circulation of goods, and is simply another element of exchange, like Primark, Marks and Spencers ready meals, or The X Factor. It doesn't create desire for pleasure or play, it creates desire for itself. People want to go to Legoland, because Legoland exists, not because it's great, or soul-enlarging.

To go there requires military planning, advance ticket purchase, finetuning of exactly what time to arrive to "beat the crowds" (of other people — apparently you, a 'person', are different from all these other mere 'people'). It requires picnic transportation (or the risk of being ripped off). It requires either racing round all the attractions at top speed, regardless of enjoyment, or queuing for an hour a ride, regardless of enjoyment. Spontaneity, at Legoland, takes the form of, "I'll meet you in Miniland in 20 minutes, I'll take Jimmy to the shop, and you go to the toilets with Janey."

Legoland is like going to a casino. You pays your money, you plays the game. You cannot win.

And what of Race for Life? Leaving aside whether calling fundraising a 'war' is itself a viable metaphor, I found myself running up a hill with my ten-year-old daughter today, raising some money for cancer research. Or rather practically dragging the poor child along as she complained about the heat and a stitch.

Here's the dialogue in my head:

- For goodness' sake, slow down, the child's tired.
- Gotta get in front of the pink bottoms.
- It's not a real race, will you calm down?
- Can't stand being behind.
- If you give her space, she'll have another go in a minute.
- Wanna win.
- Don't be daft, the winner crossed the line 20 minutes ago!
- Why can't I just run ahead?
- Because you're running with your daughter, it's a special moment, you harpy!
- Does my bum look big in this lycra?
- Yes it does. You're 45, for heaven's sake. Let it go! Just be happy!
- I hate you.
- Well I don't much like you either.

I think you get the drift. EVEN AS we were 'in the moment', savouring quality mother-daughter time, what was I doing? Feeling frustrated that I couldn't run faster. That I wasn't 21. That I wasn't thinner, more gorgeous, more successful. WHAT ON EARTH IS WRONG WITH ME? We had a view over all London, the most beautiful day this summer, funky music, Hampstead Heath in all its shimmering glory, supporters, and lunch waiting for us.

Luckily I have a fantastic daughter who has long since worked out that her Generation X mother is to be pitied, not emulated.

May all her metaphors be better for it.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Home Schooling: the sequal

Well, your wish is my command. Do you remember my little daydream about teaching my children at home, with my phd, and my years of teaching experience, and my love of literature, culture and the young?

Yesterday, as if by magic, the teachers had a TADS. This is a new educational acronym on me. Apparently it means something like Teacher Absence Day, S'there. Or possibly Training and Detention Summit. Something along those lines.

Anyway, what it means is that several times a year, (a) working women have to scrabble about for yet more expensive childcare on a random day; (b) "stay-at-home mums" (those with phds who don't fit into mainstream society) have to Find Something To Do with Their Loved Ones, Instead of Their Writing.

Because apparently teachers need to have training days, IN THE MIDDLE OF TERM. EVEN THOUGH THEY HAVE TEN WEEKS' HOLIDAY A YEAR.

Having mentioned to my daughter the notion of home education, she decided to run with it, reminding me that on a previous occasion I'd been so annoyed by them missing a perfectly good day of school, that I'd made them do extra work.

She decided to step this up a gear and actually run a Dame School for a day. She — I kid you not, and I don't think I'm even boasting, I was so shocked —

  • Designed a full day's timetable on the computer (challenge, assembly, maths, literacy, break, forest school, design and technology, quiet reading…) and then finished it by hand, illustrations and all; 
  • Developed a maths lesson with extension questions, at Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 levels; 
  • Designed a story board with planning grid on the computer (the Whatever You Like Storyboard); 
  • Put together maths and literacy workbooks for four children; 
  • Set up a school room complete with jar of pens, work files, chalks, glass of water for me, a (completed) planning notebook, also for me, table and 4 seats.

All before about 10am.

All right, maybe I'm boasting just a bit. Frankly if she can do all that by herself, my work here is done.

Then her friends arrived and we settled down for some serious school. First up was, apparently, the Morning Challenge, what the children do when they first come into the classroom.

I, clueless, drew a picture of a hole in the ground, and then a lemming next to it. Desperate to make some coffee, I left them with the conundrum, 'How many lemmings could you fit in that hole? Without squashing them'.

Here is what my daughter's friend wrote:

I think you could put one Leming on the bottom side ways, three on top and then another three on top like this: You can fit 7".

She drew a cross section of a hole, with a lemming lying provocatively on its side like Manet's Olympia at the bottom, enigmatic smile and all, with six more happily grinning lemmings, standing on each other's shoulders and their friend. I'm afraid I laughed til I cried.

All this sounds wonderful, am I right?

Sadly, all too soon, my son decided he was bored with Key Stage One Stewie's Times Tables Challenge, and embarked on a dangerous climbing mission in his room, ending with him momentarily stumbling, and a vision imprinted on my retina of his silhouette about to crash through an upstairs window.

School was suspended for major telling off, comforting and subsidence time.

You can see the picture. After hours of school assembly (on lemmings, with a lemming song), story writing, half-eaten snacks, half-eaten lunch, clearing up the kitchen at least five times, more shouting at son (at one point he nicked an egg, tried to whisk it, knocked it over, and covered half the lunch things in it), hiding the iPad at least six times, friends leaving and ensuing despair, having to take children swimming (persuasion, enforcement, cajoling, Jurassic swamp temperature changing room, upset child at pool) 'popping' into supermarket on way home, some entirely unnecessary gardening which doubled as meditation, I was ON MY KNEES.

By 6pm, when I was scrabbling about for something to cook, and hazing in and out of consciousness from exhaustion, it was all over.

The kids pooh-poohed dinner, and I lost it. They were sent upstairs, without dessert, with fleas in their ears, to get ready for bed, howling.

I lay, catatonic, on the bed, struggling to make sense of it all. Had we not had a wonderful day (from the children's point of view)? Had we not done some amazing things? Had I not been proud of my daughter for her ingenuity and care? Had I not bought a new plant?

Then why was I feeling like a complete failure, depressed, upset, deflated?

Perhaps because I'd overdone it a TADS.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

School of thought

Yesterday I was preparing a class for a tutee, and came across a Home Education website.

I found myself conducting a thought experiment. Why not educate my children at home? I have a doctorate, speak several languages, have years of teaching experience at university level, tutor others already in my own home, could find ways to develop curricula for all the subjects I'd love my children to learn, like Mandarin.

I could join a network of home schoolers, all equally enlightened, and focused on the fascinating multiplicity of subjects children might like to study.

We could take GCSEs early, and perhaps go for iGCSEs, and then the International Baccalaureat.

My children would not need to spend hours of each day locked in a classroom, we would go to museums and art galleries, circus skills and dance classes.

They would become independent learners, and follow their dreams into adulthood, instead of being constantly deflected from their goals by pointless tasks, testing and discouragement.

My kids would not face years of bullying, and peer group anxiety, as their sexuality kicks in and they have to compete with their own hormones to try to take in any learning at all.

They would be well adjusted, join clubs and meet others that way, retain their curiosity and dedication through play, experiment and gentle (rather than humiliating) mistakes.

This morning, I asked my daughter whether she'd like to be educated at home.

She said no.

It's true. We'd probably kill each other. As we went through the school gate, another mum overheard us, and pricked up her ears. I listened to myself starting to rant at her about compromise, inequality, highly-educated mothers being patronized etc etc etc, and, as she backed away from me, remembered all over again that home schooling isn't the solution.

It's keeping alive all the wonderful things we imagine for our children — in ourselves.

Not writing but painting

I have been doing a mindfulness course in the last few weeks.

It has changed my life.

I no longer do any writing at all (agonized or otherwise). Instead I have painted our front door.

Life has become extraordinarily easy.

I float through each day, doing only the task that is right in front of me, planning only the amount I need to get the next thing done. I am kind, open and generous, even to my husband. I am able to control my temper, impatience and feelings of inadequacy. I walk the children to school and back at their pace rather than my own. I smile and ask questions. I ensure the house is harmonious. I no longer listen to the news — Egypt may or may not be on the brink of a military dictatorship, or a civil war, and that is terrifying, fascinating, worrying, but ultimately there is so little I can do except be nice to people here (since no one has invited me to become a diplomat), that I might as well try to grow peas, bake chocolate cake and sit doing maths problems with my child.

Life is, in short, perfect. In the slightly less than best of all possible worlds we have colonized.


This week, the theme of the mindfulness session was about befriending. I expected this to be about befriending my problems, and was quite looking forward to it. However, it turned out to be about befriending myself (and a few others). That was quite another matter. I ended up impatient, cross, critical, analytical, sceptical and suspicious.

In every other respect, mindfulness is quite an extraordinary discipline.

You practice your capacity to occupy your conscious mind, noting its teeming preoccupations and unpredictable, relentless activities so that you no longer get caught up in them.

You learn to apprehend your intuitions, arising from the body, paying careful attention to its flux and flow.

You learn to move from hearing sound to 'hearing' thought, and see how thoughts behave like rumours — made of nothing, but building into apparently ungainsayable truths.

You learn to pay attention to your other senses — tasting your food, rather than fuelling yourself, noticing exactly how you walk, just washing up, rather than multi-tasking with your mind elsewhere on the next problem to solve.

You learn to entertain more difficult thoughts, things you habitually shy away from, and start to see where those thoughts imprint themselves in very strange places in your body.

By paying attention to what your body, rather than your mind, is doing, you learn simply to be with your tensions and aversions, dancing with them rather than fighting or trying to change them.

You learn that you have it in you, quite literally, to calm yourself in any situation, simply by focusing on your breathing.

Who knew?

All of this is ABSOLUTELY SENSATIONAL and every person alive ought to be given a free mindfulness course. It would reduce hospital bills and road rage, improve productivity, ensure more food and clothes were bought, mean that children are happy, and parents kind. It would allow Conservatives to understand that it is their repressed infantile rage and neediness which drives their politics of avarice, thrift and exclusion. It would enable Nick Clegg to disband his party, instead of wasting his valuable active years propping up a socially divisive and uncharitable government. It would allow theocrats to understand that monotheistic religions and religious organizations rest on rigid and fearful thought patterns, which, in and of themselves, crush the object of their devotion.

But I draw the line at liking myself.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Cougar Slutting

This morning I was rushing back from buying gift wrap for son's 7th birthday, when I was waylaid and forced to have coffee with some other mothers from his class. Forced, I tell you.

Somewhere in the chat, one of the mothers proudly displayed bright red shellac nails, and told us she'd found a lady whose own children are in nursery, who does nails much more cheaply than on the high street, and that as a result she could allow herself to have a manicure every three weeks, rather than never.

Another mother promptly reminisced about her own mum, who had frowned upon nail polish as risqué. As a result the daughter now feels naughty whenever she has her nails done. Luckily her mother's opinion hasn't actually stopped her doing what she wants with her nails.

Which led somehow to a discussion of Cougar Slutting. Which made us all laugh immoderately. What was a Cougar Slut? And how wonderful that, if you turn it into a verb, 'to cougar slut', it can never be in the passive. She was cougar slutted conjures wild lesbian visions rather than anything more pernicious happening to the woman…

Even as we laughed at the picture of ourselves as Cougar Sluts, pacing the night city on the hunt for a hapless younger man, her nails glowing red, we were discussing women who actually do choose to have relationships with men far their junior, deciding in a flourish of coffee cups and muffins that such relationships were deliberately doomed, then setting off on domestic errands, the world put to rights.

I'm perhaps not a Cougar Slut (my daughter wears more nail polish than I ever have; and I'm usually in bed by 10.30pm).

But it got me thinking about my own encounters with younger men, as I gracefully hover in my fifth decade. Germaine Greer has written about the female adoration of the Beautiful Boy. When I first heard about this, I sneered and found it distasteful. Now I'm not so sure. Young men, for me, seem to fall into three categories these days.

Let's start close to home. When I think about my son, I realize that I worship his strong little body, at each stage of its development. I love the completeness of it, and its self-sufficiency, his glorious lack of self-consciousness as he runs around in his pants. I worship my daughter's body too, but it's a different feeling, she is all gangly colt and enormous eyes, and I want to protect her. Clearly this stuff is cultural, because she's no more fragile or less complete than he is, yet look at me, investing in all those gender stereotypes! Do we ever really see?

Then there are the young men I pay… I had my hair cut this week by a young male stylist, and realized it is a completely different experience to having your hair cut by someone of your own gender. I felt transformed, utterly beautiful, was amazed at the thrill when he washed my hair. It made the older lady next to me giggle when I thanked him. What, exactly, was I appreciating?

Don't worry, I'm not intending to throw myself at the poor boy, I'm talking about the physical sensation it provoked, and how much it surprised me. I enjoyed feeling my head massaged, and having a good-looking young men pay so much attention to my hair — and also felt entitled to enjoy it, rather than self-conscious or ashamed, as my younger self would have done. He paid professional attention, I paid him.

I also practice yoga with a relatively young male teacher. There are moments when he applies physical pressure with his hands or upper body, to my back, to get me to let go and stretch or twist more deeply. It is a profound sensory experience, that borders the sensual, although it never strays over that border. It shocked me deeply the first time he did it, and I didn't know what to think. Now I'm more accustomed to it, and reassured by the fact that he does this to all the members of his classes, male and female. It startled me into a physical realization of how completely taboo it is for a woman to be touched in any way by a man once she is married (never mind the difficulty involved before marriage).

Finally, young men who pay me. What now? Well, I also tutor teenagers, and so am often in a position of authority, and on my own, with young men. It is always odd to receive money at the end of a tutoring hour from a very young man, because of all the associations that saturate the concept of men giving women money for a service. Both parties are embarrassed. I have learnt to avert my eyes, and pretend the money isn't there. It's better than giggling.

When I was younger, and taught men only just my junior, the difficulty lay in maintaining authority and deflecting sexual attention. Now, by virtue of being middle-aged, I physically look like an authority figure, and a mother, so the difficulty has shifted: I can't look cool, I can only be myself (and accept that they probably think I'm a mad old bat a lot of the time). And I find that I experience maternal feelings towards these young men, wanting them to be safe, admiring them as I do my own son, aware of their fragile self-esteem.

Only maternal feelings? Isn't there anything more? I think I'd be lying if I didn't point out that part of that maternal feeling is a tiny sense of loss in myself, an irrevocable tipping of the scales in which my sexual being has moved into maturity, fruition, completion, and can never be again potential, mystery, uncertainty.

Perhaps that's what older women adore in younger men: their own lost youth.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

One plus one doesn't equal two

When our second child was three months old, I flew from Sydney to London with him and our three-year-old firstborn. My husband stayed in Sydney to finish things off.

Without going into the details, the experience of flying, alone, with a breastfeeding infant and a toddler, for twenty-four hours, was almost exactly the same as labour.

I knew the pain would have to end at some point, and I also knew that I was completely on my own, while simultaneously surrounded by people looking at me, just as most women are during modern births.

The main two differences were (a) the lack of epidural on the plane, and (b) the fact that the stewardesses actively ticked me off, rather than telling me when to push.

Nothing could have drilled into my brain better the understanding that we had not added to the family in having a second child, but rather that we had gone forth and multiplied.

No one talks about what it is like to move from one to two children. There is no What To Expect book, with do-gooding and inapplicable advice for the neurotic to measure themselves against. You are expected to get on with it, to know what you are doing, by virtue of having had a first child.

Talking to an old friend last weekend, I was reminded about what I subsequently did. Both she and I responded to having a second child by immediately plunging ourselves into heavy and difficult projects, with long hours, while simultaneously either moving house or renovating a house. Both of us lasted around two years in this state of frenzy, literally running between activities, managing childcare as though it were a small business, before dropping out, completely exhausted. Both of us felt we had something to prove, that we were supposed to swim like swans, paddling furiously underneath, maintaining home and work fronts simultaneously, and smiling as we did so. The women's lot — and what a lot it was. We became military machines, hollowed out by stress, our children simply logistical problems to solve, to be ferried, fed, clothed, activitied, playdated, alphabetized. Husbands receded, and resented. And then both of us came to, and stopped. We both learnt to rebel against orthodox success criteria.

This weekend, I have been talking to my mother about her experience of moving from one to two children.

My mother moved from Holland to Iran in mid-winter, 1970, to an unfurnished house, in Teheran, with a twenty-month-old and a six-week-old infant. Within days, my father had been flown to a distant oilfield. All my mother had was a chauffeur, who drove her from market to shop, buying furniture. He was both husband and wife to her in those early days. After a year, she had to go back to England to 'rest' at her mother's.

How many more women behave like this after having a second child, I wonder? Do women successfully negotiate the changes involved in having one baby, think they've got it nailed, go for the next to satisfy their Baby Hunger, and because so many people have badgered them about the next baby, and because women have been having more than one baby since time immemorial (except in China), and then feel that they must conceal the consequences?

If this is what they are doing, then my question is why? Do they fear being judged as inadequate? To whom are they proving themselves? Is it to other women, or men… or is it to themselves — shocked and terrified to find themselves so much closer to not coping than they ever were with just one baby? What do they think they are trying to achieve? Success or sanity? To me, it felt like the moment when society at large finally got me, finally had its revenge on my ambition and drive for self-determination. Lean in? Just try not to fall over.

One of the worst memories of that post-flight time was one night when an old friend came for supper, while I was living alone with the children in our London flat, without our belongings, which were still in Australia. I tried to tell her how much I was struggling. She stared at me, and then said without emotion, "But you chose this." I felt physically winded. The gulf between us yawned.

Several years later, when she finally had her first baby, and then a second, she quietly said to me at a reunion, "I understand now."