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.