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.