Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The daily rituals of a creative mother

Daily ritual — absolutely crucial if you want to do any kind of creative work.

The other ingredient? Self-belief.

Here's what I know:

1. There's no such thing as writer's block.

2. Getting up early is the best way to marshal your wakening brain with your deepest energy.

3. Good coffee.

4. No alcohol.

5. No internet (doh).

6. Knowing what task you need to start on.

7. Only attempting one task.

8. Continually feeding your memory of yourself as in love with art. Galleries, books, films. And make notes on what you see.

9. Walk everywhere.

10. Never react to other people's messy excess.

11. Talk about your work with others who actually feed rather than crushing you. But don't talk about how hard it is to write (nothing is more boring either to say or to hear), just about how to solve the technical problem you're grappling with. Writing is both solitary and collaborative — after all, you're doing it to be read, aren't you?

12. Listen. Listen. Listen.

Had I actually observed these rituals, I'd have written and published several more of the books that infest my head.

Onwards and upwards.

Saturday, 15 November 2014


Last Saturday I had the privilege of attending the Batmitzvah ceremony of one of my daughter's schoolfriends.

The candidate was only just twelve, and the ceremony was held in an orthodox synagogue, very much by the book. I was expecting an impenetrable event, something completely foreign to my lapsed Protestant understanding. As I entered the Synagogue with my blonde hair and blue eyes, I felt like an intruder.

Instead I was invited into and witnessed a true rite of passage. The young girl had prepared over many months for this event. For her Mitzvah, she had decided to paint a series of six canvases to represent the six days of Creation, and she spoke eloquently about how each canvas had come about. She had understood early on that, although she had wanted to create something out of nothing, in fact, as a created being herself, she was only capable of creating something out of something — she was not able to create raw materials for her art ex nihilo. Only an ultimate Creator could create something from nothing.

I felt myself palpably relax and a deep sensation of comfort and relief flood through me. Although I don't believe in God, and don't believe in the literal truth of Genesis, one of the hardest edges of writing for me, and for most people, is the fear of having to create something from nothing. We forget, in a secular society, that we are not the fount of all knowledge as individuals. We are always building on, renewing, recreating what has gone before us. We are standing on the shoulders of giants, up on the stilts of our own histories and the history of writing and art that has preceded us. And we shouldn't forget that we are at the top of that history, not crushed under its weight. We are the pencil points.

The ceremony continued, after the girl's brilliant account of Genesis, with wise words from the Rabbi, but also from an old family friend (who looked spookily like the elderly Freud). He stood at the lectern on a podium, she stood down below in the body of the Synagogue, upturned face ready for his words. At first blush it looked like everything I loathe about hierarchical, patriarchal systems: the girl was to receive the wisdom of the male elder, in docile silence, her voice shut down. This would be the beginning of her domestication. And it's true that the Batmitzvah is traditionally linked to the idea of a marriage-ready girl.

Yet nothing could have been further from what actually happened. The older man spoke about her life, welcoming her to her own future, whatever it might be, alluding to possibility, potential, her own blossoming, and the ways she would be supported by her community to achieve, the cyclical nature of life.

True, at one point he told her, "We don't believe in Darwin, we believe in the literal truth of the Torah", which chilled my enthusiasm somewhat. But the girl's own party later served as something of an answer to him: it was themed on Science and Creativity.

I had also recently gone to a First Communion, and in my ignorance had thought that a Batmitzvah was something similar — welcoming a child into the Jewish faith, just as the Communion is intended to enable the child to join the Catholic faith. Absolutely wrong. In the Jewish tradition, the child is always already Jewish, and the Batmitzvah is about opening the door to her future. It's about her signing up to herself, and about her community making a promise to her. Everything about the Batmitzvah refers to commitment — of the community to the young person and back again.

I found myself sad and small by the end of the ceremony. I saw the mother's face, with her four beautiful daughters all now safely through their Batmitzvahs. She was utterly radiant, dancing with her children in the middle of the Synagogue. I crept away.

There is nothing in secular society to initiate a child into the adult world, and into her own future.

When my daughter left primary school and went to secondary, I even missed the one rite of passage that seems to have sprung up in the last few years, like weed to fill the empty space. She didn't get a mobile phone.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Chore Wars II: and another thing....

Professor Jonathan Gershuny of the Centre for Time Use Research in Oxford was making depressing and familiar points on Woman’s Hour this week (‘Chore Wars’). Women have been completely done over in the modern world, he said. Because women cannot expect marriage to last (statistically), they'd better keep earning, plus they can still expect to shoulder the majority of the unpaid work at home. 

This isn't news to me, but it's depressing to hear a Professor say it. I found it a little simplistic: what about how women cop the unpaid work at work as well? All those emotional dynamics, the presenteeism, the bringing in of fattening cakes, and, frankly, the menial paid parts of jobs. 

Be that as it may, Professor Gershuny's argument was that domestic labour has been progressively 'feminised', through labour-saving devices like boilers, dishwashers and hoovers. He argues that men used to lay the fires in the average home. Domestic jobs for the boys have been replaced by machines. Men at home are, in this account, and rather oddly, the Romantic victims of the Industrial Revolution. He also didn’t comment on the class issues involved in domestic labour — in fact it seems to have become taboo to mention class in relation to motherhood or the family. I don’t think upper class men laid their own fires, and even very average families often had a maid. The issue of who does what in the home is at least as much a class as a feminist issue. 

When I was growing up, my older father had already retired. I remember him doing masses around the house, as well as the DIY. My mother did not go out to work. Picture the one-time mechanical engineer mending the toilet flush in his pants. My mother quietly devoted her time to us and to cooking, gardening and weaving. I inherited the double expectation that partners in a marriage share domestic labour, and that mothers are there for their children. I wish I had understood how lucky I was as a child, how impossible it would be to provide the same kind of attention to my own children, and just how bad I was going to feel about this. 

I got my husband to do the Mumsnet Chores Surveyand by and large he was realistic. He only over-estimated his contribution a little — and in fact, at the moment, he is doing the lion's share, because I'm the one working, so we take turns. Domestic drudgery goes in waves and phases for us. Yet when you look at the results of the Mumsnet survey, the way we share just isn't representative of what's going on in the British home. I would gladly relinquish all housework — I really don't care about it — if I thought that I wasn't going to be judged and forced to justify myself about it

I find it impossible not to care (even though I don't care) what people think of my mothering/domestic actions, because the dominant assumptions are so… dominant. It's the lack of alternative models for living that I find truly suffocating. In my own life, my husband and I have abandoned mainstream ways of doing pretty much everything, because we thought a lot of those assumptions were marriage-endingly unfair on me. But we feel in a minority for doing so. 

I still iron his shirts, and love baking (I have won prizes for my cakes!), but I want to do it on my terms. The trouble is that there seems so little room for this at the moment. There's no space in which to iron your man's shirt out of love, or practicality, without being judged a feeble stay-at-home, and no space in which to refuse to iron your man's shirt without being judged a hard-faced cow. But why should this be, when women are supposed to have been liberated from all these stereotypes? The answer, of course, is that they have not liberated themselves or each other. We are afraid to let go of the stereotypes, because we don't know who we would be without them. 

My husband still does the irritating deferral of every domestic decision to me, and I have to train him constantly to think for himself, but he thinks he's just practising 'good communication' (by asking me 'whether or not son needs a packed lunch'). So sweet. I've accepted the idea that I'm the family leader, which has its pros and cons — essentially the family is much happier when I'm in charge of absolutely everything (and so am I). 

BUT. It is also my job to delegate well so that I don't fall over with the stress of it all, and so that my son grows up to pull his weight, and my daughter grows up to know she's entitled to live a balanced life.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Mumsnet: The Chore Wars

Yesterday, Mumsnet asked me to write a guest post for them on their current Chores Survey. You can read the post here, and I've added it for convenience below. Enjoy!

"On Monday I met a friend for lunch. I'd put ‘Luncheon with Janet’ in the calendar, because it made us both laugh to think of ourselves as Ladies who Lunch.

As we were sitting chatting, my husband walked into the cafe, carrying a big bag of food shopping. He looked rather dashing, actually, all six foot three of him; he had on one of his dark work jackets, and those deep chocolate brown eyes were twinkling.

He wanted to know whether I had the car with me, so he could put the shopping in the boot and walk home. As he left the cafe, we flirted with each other, and he pulled an imaginary forelock, Clifford to my Lady Chatterley.

How are we to interpret this silly little anecdote? My heart burst with pride to see my husband in an unaccustomed context and to see him caring for the family, but the transaction still had to take place under the aegis of irony - I'm not really a lady who lunches and he isn't really my butler or my gardener. This was division of labour as stage show.

This week, Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour is exploring 'Chore Wars', while Mumsnet has published the results of their chores survey, which asked 1000 women who work outside the home how they share the chores with their partners.

It's fascinating stuff, if a bit depressing. Take Jonathan Gershuny of the Centre for Time Use Research in Oxford, making the point on Woman's Hour that women have been completely done over in the modern world: because you cannot expect marriage to last (statistically), you'd better keep earning, and you are still going to shoulder the majority of the unpaid work at home. 
There was an expectation that I would do it all, in the home and outside it, and that 'sharing' was, impossibly, both a kind of failure and a kind of privilege. I shouldn't need help, and if I did, I was weak.

Gershuny's findings show that although some tasks like cooking (note: creative, occasionally enjoyable) have become more evenly shared, very few men pull their weight with tasks like laundry (note: mind-numbingly dull). The Mumsnet survey also reflected this: 77% of women who work outside the home are also responsible for the washing.

Of course, the advent of dishwashers and washing machines and hoovers should mean that women’s lives have got easier – but have they? I would argue that the way we use labour-saving devices has itself become laborious because we've made more work for ourselves. Washday is no longer just Monday, but every day - the chore of washing has multiplied, because it is no longer acceptable, in our image-conscious society, to wear two-day old clothing. Keeping your children looking presentable is just one example of the domestic expectations heaped on women – markers, like having a spotless home, that have become, apparently, necessary in order to register on the index of female success.

When I began my family, I had a good understanding of how tiring and intense parenting would be, but nothing prepared me for the domestic scenario that goes along with it: wall to wall female expectation that I would do it all, in the home and outside it, and that ‘sharing’ was, impossibly, both a kind of failure, and a kind of privilege. I shouldn't need help, and if I did, I was weak. I felt as if I had walked out of my own life and into the nineteenth century.

There's a constant sense of guilt and competition, the feeling that if you can't manage this 'thing' – the home, the family, the cooking, the children's needs, your partner's needs – as millions of women have done before you, and continue to do around the world, then you’re a failure.

It's fascinating to me that 66% of the women Mumsnet asked about chores said they didn't want their partner to do more around the house, despite the unequal distribution of responsibilities, either because they’re comfortable with the current balance, or because it suits them to do the chores themselves, or because they believe that their partner would not perform them to the 'requisite standard'. Could it be the case that we know we're getting a rough deal, but that the idea that women are ‘better suited’ than men to domestic drudgery is still so pervasive that we'd rather not upset the status quo, salving ourselves with: ‘they’d do a rubbish job, anyway’?

So, what's the solution? Chores need to get done, after all. After years of trying to do it all, I've learnt that sharing is crucial. I've learnt that chores are in large part self-imposed, turned into an instrument of competition and made much worse by contemporary expectations from schools about ‘parental engagement’. I've also learnt that chores are as demeaning for women as they are for men, and that a bit of hard work doesn't hurt our children either. After all, they're part of the team too."

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Studio Mothers: The Sugar Log

I was absolutely delighted to be asked to write a guest post for a blog I follow, on combining creativity and motherhood.

The blog is called Studio Mothers: enjoy!

The Sugar Log

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Why phonics is nonsense

As my son 'revised key words for year 4', it became clear that his list of spellings this week contained all the proof you need to refute the teaching of reading and spelling through phonics. 

I present… five ways to pronounce '-ough' in English:

English is not a phonetic language

In the last couple of years in the UK, the methodology of phonics has, delightfully, been converted into a government-devised and compulsory 'phonics screening check' at the end of year 1. 

Kids who know how to read can fail this check, if they baulk at pronouncing made-up words using the rules of phonics. 

They are then given remedial attention — to get better at phonics. 

Which is then abandoned as children move through primary education… because it stops working once you are writing anything beyond 'cat'. For example, 'Kate'. Or 'Keith'. Or 'knight'.

I know, I know, the 'phonics method' is really about helping children put together sounds and letters as they begin to decode, but it's so limited, and seems, for all the hype and testing that surrounds it, to be valid only for a matter of months in a child's life, before being shrugged off and forgotten. 

If you want to teach phonics, go to Holland. At least Dutch actually is a (relatively) phonetic language. 

All the '-ough' words above come from Anglo-Saxon, Old German, Old Dutch or Old Danish roots, and all have come to be pronounced differently in modern English. I always remember a French pen friend despairing about learning English, when reading Black Beauty, and finding it impossible to know how to say 'ploughed fields'. 'Pluffed fields', and the subsequent giggling, will always live in my memory as a joyous linguistic moment. To say nothing of homophones (bough and… bow) and homonyms (bow(tie) and… bow (down)). 

Stop plaguing our children with this narrow phonics ideology, which isn't historically or linguistically accurate, and tell them something about how language really works, and the amazing places it comes from. Which, along the way, might teach them something a bit more accurate about what 'Britishness' is — a composite of invading cultures, rather than Morris dancing, Wimbledon and St George and the Dragon (George was Palestinian anyway). While you help them learn to read, then spell, with all the methods that have been developed to do so. One of which is... pleasure. 

Wait, just clambering off my soapbox.

PS. there's a 6th way to say '-ough': 'thorough' (-uh). And I have been. My pedantometer is all the way over at HIGH.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Complex Medea: Medea complex

Thank goodness I saw Helen McCrory's sublime Medea courtesy of National Theatre Live last week.

Otherwise I might find myself becoming complacent about being happy in motherhood.

Yup, I am that age. I cannot go out to the theatre any more, because of young children, recession (don't tell me it's over), and exorbitant ticket and babysitting fees. But I CAN go to the local cinema with a friend and some popcorn, and sit amongst a throng of grey-haired ladies and gentlemen, all pretending we are what we once were, and down on the South Bank.

It is a strange experience to hear big-voiced theatrical projection and see facial expressions meant for the back of a proscenium theatre, brought to you in close up on a cinema screen. An old friend of mine was also in the production, and frankly, looked as if he was gurning. Others have assured me that from the stalls, he was excellent.

So it is not a perfect transmission of the theatrical experience, but it would not have mattered whether Helen McCrory were on film, TV, stage or at a bus stop. She possessed and was possessed by the ghost of Medea like nothing I have ever seen before.

This is Euripides reworked by Ben Power, but so brilliantly written that, although we have the sense of being in the twenty-first century, with a posh wedding, a Chorus dressed in Desperate Housewives chic, Medea's boys watching TV lying on sleeping bags, and Medea herself wearing her husband Jason's trousers, we are simultaneously in fifth-century BC Corinth. It is also the National Theatre's first ever Medea. Could it be that both the taboo of the subject matter and the purity of the tragedy are just too difficult for modern theatregoers? All the more important in these days of working mothers, recomposed families, single mothers — families and the women in them under such pressure — that we see representations of what they might be going through inside.

Because that's what Medea is — she is nothing but her internal white-hot pain and rage, jealousy of her man Jason's new wife, fury at his abandonment and betrayal of her and their sons. This furnace of passions leads her, step by awful step, towards the mental readiness to murder what he and she hold most dear, in order to avenge herself. We are powerless to prevent it, relegated to the sidelines with the nurse and the Chorus. All we can do is sit in the dark and bear witness to what will inevitably happen.

All the power of the tragedy is in its inexorable progress from 'what is she capable of?' to 'what has she done?' In most tragedy, the wheel of fortune turns, and a fatal flaw in the protagonist plays its part in his downfall — there are extenuating circumstances. In Medea, the wheel of fortune is in the hands, not of the gods, but of her self-interested husband, prepared to drop her for a shot at personal power, and content to justify this as done in the name of his real (but abandoned) family. The wheel has turned before the play even starts, it is not part of the plot machinery. When we are introduced to Medea, she is already alone, back against the wall, to be ousted with her sons from Corinth, while her ex stays to marry into the royal family. Yet for Jason's sake, she has already murdered a member of her own family, her brother, and betrayed her father. It might make one ask whether Jason has it coming?

The real question at the heart of the plot is whether or not Medea is mad. The question subtending that one is whether all women are potentially capable of murdering their children. Is she the exception or a possible, utterly terrifying rule, the deepest fear in all of us, that our mothers might kill us?

For McCrory, playing this exhausting role in 2014, it is vital to assert that Medea is not mad. She is simply refusing the fate, the betrayal, the excommunication, that has been meted out to her, by exacting the ultimate revenge. This interpretation is not about excusing Medea, but explaining her, in order to activate the pity and awe the audience must feel. McCrory, I think, plays Medea as warning. The fact that there is precedent, that she has killed before, tells the nurse (although Jason is too blinded by his self-justifications) what she is likely to move towards.

McCrory's performance makes very clear that Medea never denies that killing her own children will also destroy her capacity for normal wellbeing. She knows very well that what she is about to do is both morally wrong, and that she will find it unbearable to live with her own action — and that she will going on living. In that sense she is Beckettian. It is impossible that she should live with her crime, but she does. The strength that Medea presents at the end of the NT production, as she heaves the boys' bodies, encased in blood-soaked sleeping bags, onto each shoulder, and labours, step by excruciating step, off stage towards Aegeus and Athens, is desolating to behold. She has her single moment of revenge — she sees the look on Jason's face — and then she faces the rest of her life, accompanied only by the knowledge of what she has done.

Is she evil? It is certainly premeditated, if only for a day, the space of the play: she has to talk herself into killing the boys, and her courage fails her many times. Nothing can justify the boys' murder, which is precisely why she does it. She believes that nothing justifies what Jason has done to her. Simply killing Jason's new wife, Glauce, daughter of King Creon, and Creon himself, with a poisoned robe, is not enough of a revenge. The only way to transmit fully to Jason what he has done to her, is to do something still more unjustifiable.

The act is evil, it speaks of evil, but she is a vehicle of the causes of evil — indifference, exploitation, the desire for power at any price. Those qualities are present in Jason, not Medea — she cares too much, loves Jason crazily, has been too completely crushed in love, is utterly bereft of power. Jason does not deserve to have his sons die, nothing redeems their death, they are crushed by her fury and thirst for revenge. At the point of committing the act, those passions have consumed her and transmuted into commitment. After the act, she returns to herself. The act itself has to remain beyond our — even her — understanding, in order to carry the power it does. This is why it takes place off stage (it must not be seen, it is literally obscene, ob-scaena). She herself is not mad as she does it, although her determination looks identical to madness.

Euripides' Medea seems to me a near-perfect example of the rules and machinery of Greek tragedy, wrought through innovations to that form (the protagonist is female, she is alone, there are no Gods, she is part Goddess).

Roald Dahl/Tim Minchin's Matilda is the index of pushy parenting for our times. Medea takes the temperature of the desperate pressure women are under to have it all by doing it all, without any guarantee of personal fulfilment or security, and shows the ultimate price.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Dealing with strong-willed parents

In the wake of what I now call the Cardiff fandango, I have been having a summer of hardline parenting, research into Manipulative and Strong-Willed Children, and experimentation.

Here's what happened and what I learnt:

1. Getting the kids to do chores I don't want to do, but need to get done (aka washing the car, weeding the path), and paying them for it, can be incredibly good fun.

Learning: if it costs a bob or two, don't sweat it. They did the work, they earnt it.

2. Always seize the opportunity to pick blackberries when out and about. A sure sign that the summer holidays are coming to an end, and absolutely free.

Learning: take a hat, you never know when you'll need extra storage.

3. Put up a tent in the garden, and let the children stay out overnight. The first night son was back in twenty minutes, afraid of foxes. But once daughter had made it, he screwed his courage to his sticking plaster, and stayed put, even in the rain.

Learning: sibling rivalry ensures progress.

4. Visit cats you have catsat. Introduce your children to friend who does not have children, via peace dove of their mutual love of the cats. Strategically whisk children away before they can inflict any damage on friend's possessions. Thusly delude friend into thinking that your children are well-behaved. Build bridge to further sightings of friend in park, while children knock unripe conkers off trees, and argue about who needs to push whom on the swing, in the background. Thank lucky stars it's not raining. Laugh at shared knowledge that cat is now so overweight (thanks to combined feeding) that he is, and I quote, "too fat for his harness". Go home feeling guilty about cat.

Learning: don't express your love through overfeeding cats.

5. Buy boring mince. Make burgers, fries and milkshakes and eat them in front of Pitch Perfect with children, while husband away in untimely fashion. Try not to explain the rude words to eight-year-old son, who is very keen to know what a 'dickhead' is.

Learning: Film Nights are fantastic for defusing the tension and reminding you that you once had a life.

6. Force your mother to babysit while you go out and do back to back dance classes. Return home in very good mood to find children at each other's throats and your mother under a heap of your ironing.  Reactivate no. 2.

Learning: Blackberries need a lot of sugar.

7. Have a mother who loves you enough to want to take you out for sushi.

Learning: I am blessed.

8. Go for a run with a much fitter friend, in the absolute pouring rain, then have a raucous coffee at local favourite cafe. Talk about the floodgates opening. Best conversation I've had in years. I was just explaining in a stage whisper how I felt about my husband's newly sprouted handlebar moustache, when the man at the next table turned around, sporting a beard and 'tache so bushy that he looked like a illustration of an Edward Lear poem. Strengthened by Iron Mother run in wet woods, I was utterly unrepentant. He looked like a throttled spider by the end of the conversation. Arrived home to find husband shaving off moustache. Feel the Karma.

Learning: don't hold back when you feel strongly about something.

9. Ask mother to sew on cloth name labels to daughter's school uniform, cloth name labels you bought when daughter was born, and which you have never used. Spend delightful afternoon repairing second-hand uniform skirts, squabbling over the scissors, and teaching daughter to sew. Everybody happy.

Learning: tempus fugit. But even though the cloth name label company has now gone out of business, it has brought pleasure to three generations.

10. Go out for drink with husband. Sit head in hands wondering how we are going to pay the school fees. Go home after one hour. Feel marginally better.

Learning: even if all you've got to talk about is how expensive life is going to be for the next decade, it's really nice to go out with your partner.

11. Get husband to look after children for the day while you go into town and interview people for Motherload, bump into old friend and have long coffee, then have more sushi with another old friend, and talk loudly about the decline of standards at Oxbridge, just to annoy the people either side of you.

Learning: being a dirty stopout is absolutely compulsory.

12. Take children into central London to see Horrible Histories. Accidentally arrive with too much time to spare and force children to walk to Trafalgar Square. Horrible Histories, meh, Trafalgar Square, brilliant:

The force is just to the right of him

The blue cock
Learning: I think it speaks for itself.

13. Have several days where you work, and do absolutely nothing to entertain the children. Well, ok, husband took them to the park, and son had a friend round.

Learning: it's crucial to your mental health to get the chance to do your own work in the summer holidays.

14. Insist that eleven-year-old takes bus home by herself. She will start secondary school in under 3 weeks, and will be travelling to and from school on her own. Resist all her attempts to get out of travelling on her own. Watch child succeed.

Learning: tough it out.

15. Make daughter chop potatoes into fries. Soak chicken in buttermilk all day then shallow fry in breadcrumbs, and finish in the oven with the fries. Sit back and watch children scrape plates.

Learning: tough it out, but in the name of yumminess.

16. Melt two Snickers bars with some butter and milk. Pour over vanilla ice-cream and chopped bananas. Sit back and watch children scrape plates. See 5. above.

Learning: cook fast food at home and add a salad. Your children will eat. 

17. Buy books about manipulative and strong-willed children off 'tinternet. Read them in bed and feel rising anger at yourself and your sloppy parenting methods. Ask son to wash his hands after doing a wee. Do not give in when he whines, throws himself on the floor, shouts at you, hits you.

Learning: I'm not sure what to say. 

18. Go downstairs and have argument with husband about going on a Family Outing to the National Gallery. Husband's POV: it'll be a fibrous muesli-eating nightmare and isn't worth it. Personal POV: husband is lazy and this is why son is a pain in the backside. Husband's rhetorical strategy: tell wife she's dogmatic, bossy, and "strong-willed". Wife's strategy: agree with everything, and then point out that husband is completely irrational. Walk out and make coffee without resolving argument.

Learning: coffee is more important than the National Gallery.

19. Go upstairs and make son get up and survey the three mouldering apple cores you found behind the radiator last night. Tell him you're taking away his new Lego sticker book for the weekend, bought with his own money, unless he clears up and apologises. Sit back with husband and watch for ten minutes as son blows raspberries, refuses to do anything, screams, swears, hits. Up the withdrawal of the new book to a week. Watch as child scrapes apples into recycling.

Learning: coldly hold the line.

20. Use Talking Spoon to reiterate your view that an educational family trip to the National Gallery, even if it only lasts 20 minutes, is better than sitting around, which we've already done for the last few days anyway. Plus if it doesn't work, you can go outside and look at the blue cock again. Be astonished as husband agrees with you, daughter agrees with you, and son doesn't put up much resistance. Be even more astonished when husband hangs up washing, and repairs shed window, a job you have been looking at for about six months.

Learning: say what you have to say and stick to it.

21. Feel faintly smug for two minutes, until the next behaviour crisis. Keep tight hold of parenting book on strong-willed children, with sweaty palms. 

Learning: dealing with strong wills starts at home. 

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Chopping and changing

We came home from abortive trip to Cardiff yesterday, where I discovered son's new vocation as a hairdresser:
Fringe drama
Today we got up, and I promptly missed an early morning yoga class, because, despite all my good intentions (my plans to get up at 6am, my plans to re-read my manuscript, get close to my material, find points to integrate other voices), I feel keel-hauled every matins by the shenanigans of the day before. Luckily my husband was there to wake up son, before leaving for work and then a trip to watch cricket in Manchester for a couple of days, an event I have studiously failed to understand was on the horizon.

After yelling at the children to get dressed, put their stuff away, do their teeth, and stop making me say the SAME THINGS EVERY SINGLE DAY, as I am going completely bananas, I heard myself say to my son, "If you wash the car, I'll pay you £6."

Once this job had been handed out, my daughter wanted to earn some cash too, so I set her to work on de-mossing our garden path. Son needs the cash because he will need to pay for his next haircut, buy his sister the scrapbook he cut up (it's all about scissors at the moment, search me why), and buy my mum replacements for the thread he wound all round her guest room.

He's a little short on cash: the last time he had any money was after his school report, and that had to be spent on buying back the expensive, full bottle of shampoo he decided to empty into his bath.

Cleaning up our act
The sun was shining, we drove, in the car, to Halfords to buy a bucket, sponge and shampoo, to clean the car — an irony not lost on bright spark son.

Cleaning the car doesn't happen very often in this household. In fact moss grows not only on our garden path, but in the crevices of the car's window frames. Last time I saw moss on a car was on the wooden chassis of an ancient Morris Minor, beloved vehicle of my first boyfriend.

Out we all trooped, daughter to sit on a gardening pad and pick at the path with a fork, Kindle Fire blaring out the Grease soundtrack; son completely soaked after about two minutes, brandishing large yellow sponge, and occasionally touching the car with it, chatting to all the neighbours and making friends with the postman.

Once I'd finished washing the vehicle, he vacuumed the whole thing, sitting in the boot to do the awkward bits. I am minded to send him into the weaving mills — he's the right size. We washed the dashboard, polished the windows, and the dreadful old boat looks positively spiffing now.

The kids are quietly playing, one in the garden with a spider and a Scooby doo van, one in her room, endlessly drawing what she fondly imagines to be high fashion. I am sitting writing, cup of tea to hand, feeling on top of the world.

I even made a batch of flapjack while the car was being washed, thinking that low GI food would help us all along. Used all my husband's oats.

Sadly I burnt it. Still can't multitask.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Summer holiday blues

This was the year I was going to crack it. I was determined to enjoy the summer holidays and family time.

My daughter has just finished primary school, and this is her last summer before secondary. It feels like the right moment to push a little harder to get her to step gingerly out of the nest and start flapping her little wings. And it also feels like the right moment to get her to help clean the nest up, frankly. I put some activities in the diary, and sat back, thinking, "And they can amuse themselves around that skeleton structure". In those words, damn my hubris.

As I sit here this evening, catatonic, I look back at the diary, and realise we've done an awful lot, and that I am simply tired. In the last fortnight, we have been to Sussex, the Cotswolds, and Wales, our son has starred in Frozen, I've had reflexology, and started running, I've worked on a book my daughter and I are writing, picked pounds of summer fruit, gone to an urban beach, daughter has gone tree walking, we've been down a mine, and that's not counting the cooking, family time, monopoly, dancing, yoga, seeing old friends, meeting our new kittens.

At first this ridiculous over-doing of things went well, and there was I feeling utterly smug, thinking that the kids are finally old enough to be reasoned with, to help around the house. to put themselves to bed, and that I will, this summer, for the very first time, be able to complete a piece of writing, and combine this with time with the children. For the first time, it won't be 'mother does childcare' so much as simple family life. I was to get time to myself, without needing to cough up to put the children in some sports camp; I could model the writing life for them; they would amuse themselves — as they do quite a lot of the time at the weekend, these days. It seemed to be going in that direction, with a few "I'm bo-red"s along the way, but as nothing compared with the earlier summers of despair and depression I had endured. (Mine, I hasten to add, not the kids'.)

However, then I took the children to my mother's, in Cardiff, for three days. I can explain what happened next in various ways, but the basic problem is that I took my eye off the ball that is the kids' constant need for attention and stimulation, in order to spend time focusing on my mum.

So the kids promptly stayed up till gone 11pm and then slept in until 10am. They were rude, sullen, and argued back when I asked them to help clear up. In the swimming pool, they were told off for bombing, chucking things, shouting, by me, my mother and the life guard. My son, abetted by small cousin, raided my mum's sewing boxes up in the guest room, and made a kind of Mona Hatoum installation of thread, connecting toys, chairs, beds, lamps. If I'm honest I was quite impressed. But he and little cousin lied about it, and so the heavy hand of parenting had to come down. The next day it turned out they had thrown great handfuls of the thread out of the skylight onto the Acer beneath, where I found it, like fairy bunting trammelling up the twigs. When the cousins arrived, son rushed downstairs and tried to lift older girl cousin up, causing her to fall headlong against the hall radiator. Son and cousin chopped up a scrapbook they had found into paper aeroplanes, which they then flew out of the skylight into the gutters below, there to block rainwater and lead to overflow. Egged on by small cousin, my son cut his whole fringe off, right up at the hairline. That night, I found my son holding a large red wastepaper bin out of the skylight, trying to catch the rain, because he "wanted to see what it tasted like". Water was running back along the tilted window and dripping onto the books and carpet beneath.  I went nuts.

In the end I cut short the trip, and drove them back to London, in silence. When we got home, I insisted that son write a letter to his grandmother to thank her, and apologise for all the damage. It took two hours of steadfast insistence, with him screaming, swearing, breaking his own pen, screwing up paper, trying to run around. I do not know how I managed to control myself, but I did. I got to a point where I was able to observe his behaviour without being drawn into it. It helped me understand how the idea of possession might have seemed plausible. He resorted to an absolutely extraordinary array of toxic manipulations to get out of taking responsibility for his actions, and making amends. But I was determined. Gradually his resistance wore down, and he eventually wrote that letter, describing what he had enjoyed, and apologising for the Mona Hatoum, promising to buy more thread.

I thought we were there, and the rest of the afternoon and early evening went well. Then I put them to bed and it all began again. I don't know about you, but the summer months this year have seen the children's sleep patterns blown to pieces. They seem unable to go to sleep if it's light. I can remember the delight of reading after lights out, standing on my pillow up against the window, with the curtains over half of me. I've tried to be indulgent about it -- my daughter had no work to do post-SATs, and my son's only 8, so it hardly seemed a crime for them to stay up a little later if they were safely in bed. My father used to beat me for reading after lights out -- this seemed somewhat excessive to my child brain, and still does to my adult brain. But although I can picture my child self, avidly reading just one more chapter, my sad adult self just wants the kids to go the f**k to sleep, aware of storms the next day, or of being unable to wake them at a reasonable time, all our days knocked sideways, my copycat somnolence… we live in such interdependence that our circadian rhythms seem as locked together as loom bands.

So there was shouting from me, and from the children. There were apologies. There was renewed storming up and down the stairs. And now I sit here at 11pm, not quite certain that my son is yet asleep, in the ruins of my bid to calm and contain his wilful behaviour, typing "I cannot cope with my children" into Google, and reading the many, many accounts of despair, guilt and grief that may be found posted online.

Looks like this summer holiday is going to follow the pattern of all the others.

Monday, 7 July 2014

The only two parenting metaphors you will ever need

Race for life

This weekend, my daughter and I did the local 5k Race for Life (thank you, you can still donate!), to raise money for research into cancer. This is the third time we've done it, and it's become a bit of a tradition to see whether we can beat the previous year's time. Logically this should work, because as my daughter gets older, she gets taller and faster. We won't go into what happens to her mother. 

I didn't sleep well, and woke already tired and fretful. The rain had bucketed the night before, and the terrain was soggy, so I suggested that she and I head into the runners' group, so that we'd have a fresh start — we weren't going for a runner's time, we just didn't want to be slipping over in the churn. 

Within only a few moments, daughter was straggling and slowing to a walk. Not yet well breathed, I was hopping up and down and urging her forwards in what I hoped wasn't too obviously a stentorian manner. She seemed to have a stitch most of the way round the course, and as the metres dragged into kilometres, I was racing ahead, then standing still until she caught up, tapping my foot, and eventually unashamedly hands on hips. Well I say unashamedly, actually I felt rubbish. We were supposed to be running together, it was supposed to be our mother-daughter moment. But there I was with two winners' symbols instead of eyes, champing at the bit and leaving her behind in my testosterone-fuelled desire to kick butt. 

In the final kilometre, my eleven year old gave it one big push, and ran most of it, and we crossed the finish line at an uphill sprint, carried along by the cheering. 

As we looked up to see the time, we realised we'd beaten last year's time by over 3 minutes. We weren't going slowly at all. I was just being competitive. 

In the warm-down time that followed, finally satisfied, I apologised to her. She'd known it was happening, knows she has a mad mother, puts up with it resignedly, told me off quietly. Then we went for ice cream and pick and mix, and wandered through Hampstead, browsing in the bookshop, and fingering sale price T-shirts together. She swam into my focus, my beautiful, calm, determined daughter, so much better adjusted than I am. Doing it her own way. 

Three in a bed

That night, she had a the edges of a migraine, and I put her to bed in our room, hoping to distract her. Husband ended up in her bed, and I slept with her. In the middle of the night, a solid lump of boy interposed itself between daughter and me, with his habitual snuffle, and propensity to sleep sideways. Early in the morning, daughter was beside herself. Occupying fully half the bed, she screeched, "I've got no room! You're always getting in the way between Mummy and me! I can't sleep with your snoring! You always ruin everything, this is MY bed!" No amount of exhausted mumbling from me would stop her, and eventually she had to be ejected, to further screaming. 

Later that day we had to go and buy school uniform for secondary school. She and I made the symbolic trip to be sized up and kitted out, me reliving my childhood, she on the brink of the next big stage of her life. I spoke to her frankly about the excruciating jealousy I had suffered from as a child with a younger brother, always coming up behind me, always edging onto my terrain. I told her very quietly that learning about how jealousy blinds you is perhaps the most important thing I learnt as a child. Understanding and living with her own jealousy was the best way to stop suffering from it — and also to prevent its excesses in other people from harming her. She sat in silence, and listened. She nodded, and we bought hotdogs and candy floss, wandering again in contentment, side by side through the summer streets. What did she hear? What did she take in? I want her so desperately not to fall into the same traps that I did, and I know that I cannot prevent it. 

Saturday, 5 July 2014

What made you want to have a baby?

I was at the pub last night with some fellow parents from school. We were chatting about this and that, and then suddenly the conversation kicked up a gear.

I was droning on about how rubbish mothers' lives are, as usual, when a friend of mine, who is a lawyer, interjected to say, 'Way before I had children, I was working in private practice. A partner sat me down and said, "You have the potential to go all the way, and make partner, as long as you focus completely on your work, and stop doing all this creative writing stuff".' My friend was writing a novel in her spare time, and had an agent. She went on, 'What I thought was, "Stuff that, I just don't want to sell my soul into lawyering if it means I can't do what I want". It made me realise that having a baby was actually a radical thing to do, when there was such a weight of assumption that all I would want to do was make partner.'

It felt as though a ray of light had burst into the pub. Another friend chipped in with a similar story: she had been sat down in Hong Kong, and told that she could go all the way, or some such phrase, if she just dumped the boyfriend. The boyfriend is now the father of her two children.

When I was being shown the range of Cambridge Colleges I could choose from, on becoming a lecturer there, the Bursar at one of them pointed out that there was a college creche. The woman from the French department, who was showing me round the college, interrupted him to say, "Oh, Ingrid won't have time to have a baby," and laughed. I made myself laugh too, but mentally put a big, black cross through that college. This woman already had two children. A man appointed at the same time as I was subsequently took up a Fellowship at this college. When he and his wife had twins a couple of years later, they duly used the college creche. The woman who'd shown me round? She eventually became the head of the French Department. When I had a baby, she forced me to resign.

Women are told all the time in their early careers that having a family is in conflict with their ambitions. They are warned that having babies will cost them promotion, cost them income, cost them status. They're also told that they will be unfulfilled if they don't have a baby. Men aren't told this.

Having a baby for me was an existential choice. I knew very well that procreating would put potentially intolerable pressure on me and on my career — everything I had ever witnessed in academic life had taught me that. I knew the odds were stacked against me if I reproduced. And I went ahead, I made the choice, with my partner, to go for pregnancy. I took the consequences.

Having a baby, and what was then done to me in terms of employment and career path, security and pension, forced me into a situation in which I have had to go on making existential choices, again and again, to keep renewing my personal freedom. This has at times felt relentless, unfair, frightening — but I have never stopped, and I am much happier than I was a decade ago. The idea that an employer should ever tell a woman that she should not have a baby, or threaten her employment prospects if she dares to do so, is such a disgusting one, that I want to take to the streets.

We think this kind of stuff is in the past, that Western women now exercise free choice as they make their way through education and into employment, give or take a bit of salary disparity. But behind closed doors, in meeting rooms, in asides and emails, women are still being bullied about their choices. As if only women have children. As if men don't. What are men? The angel Gabriel?

My answers have been to refuse to compromise myself into giving up what I love and what makes my life finally have meaning, even if it makes no economic sense, and even if I have no status in the eyes of society at large. Why the hell should I? I'd lay down my life for our children, but I'm not going to kill myself for a job. If society wants to capitalise on the education I was given, and the skills my experience has brought me, it's going to have to step up. Not the other way round.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Hearing voices

I've been having trouble with hearing voices for years now.

Don't worry, I'm not going nuts, or no more than usual.

The problem I have is a writing problem. How do you convey multiple voices in a narrative? How do you do polyphony convincingly? When you're in the school playground, on the bus, in a restaurant, in a cafe surrounded by mothers, when you're in a park, or waiting outside some activity or other, you are surrounded by conversation. People — especially women — chat about their lives constantly. While it's very difficult to define what the 'stuff of life' really is (once you've identified DNA, you realise you don't even know what consciousness is), we are indubitably brilliant at using language to continually construct, shape and reshape our reality, and that's what conversation is all about. So at least capturing conversation might help you convey 'reality'?

I've been trying to write Motherload for something like four years (I never like adding up the actual number of days that have passed, but I tell myself it's because I'm always managing motherload that I don't have the time to write Motherload). And the point I've got to is this: I can write endlessly about my own experience (somebody listen to me, please!). I've interviewed quite a large number of other people, men and women, and heard with enormous pleasure about how they manage their motherload.

But when it comes to writing about them, about what they told me, I hit this hideous wall, every time.

It's the job of the writer to make some kind of sense of all that material. It's my job to shape it, to purvey it, to curate it, to archive it, to interpret it, select and filter it. The trouble is that I absolutely loathe that dimension of what writing is.

And the reason for my loathing is that I find it desperately manipulative. I am having to choose what to leave out, and that gives me too much power — I could lie about what others have told me, bend their reality to my own account of it. And I undoubtedly will.

I don't want that power — just as I am terrified by the power I have to shape my children's reality.

I want people to step forward as they are, fully and completely.

But here I'm up against my own fantasy.

Because of course none of us is complete or coherent. We are all fragments and chaos, our tired brains constantly chewing away on the data from our senses, busily employed in sense-making, all day, every day. We stop short at certain versions of ourselves, and bundle them into neat stereotypes, because otherwise we couldn't get up in the morning. But we are remaking ourselves every single day. It's only habit that clothes us in uniformity.

So in my snippet-excerpts from other people's reality, in those interviews I conducted using the same questionnaire, all I really ever got was a snapshot at a certain moment of how someone was feeling at that moment. I carefully squirrelled it all away, but it was never the reality I wanted it to be. Those archived interviews are themselves in perpetual motion. Whenever I open one up on the computer, the words immediately start dancing, the meaning scatters, time passes once again. Some of those interviews are now four years old. The people have changed, their children and they are four years older. It is all, always in flux.

Until today I have felt hugely held back by this. As a literary critic and a tutor, I am always telling people to go back to the text, that's the one fixed thing you have. But it's an illusion. Texts are not stable creatures, fixed for all time. They just look as though they are. You only have to read a play script, and think about how a director and actor interpret it, leaving out words, adding tone and expression and movement to those lines, making 3D what had seemed safely 2D, to realise that texts are anything but static.

So why am I feeling happier about my writing problem? Well, last night, I saw Punchdrunk's The Drowned Man at Temple Studios, and it has revolutionised the way I look at my material.

Punchdrunk is now famous for immersive theatre, for abolishing the fourth wall, and taking promenade theatre into hyperreality. The intricacy, attention to detail in set, choreography, acting craft, allusiveness, and mood are unparalleled. The Drowned Man is a piece set in a four-storey disused building, in which they have created an entire film set, with its own surroundings, so that you are never really sure where film set ends and non-set begins.

After an endless haunted-house tunnel, a neon-lit lift takes you up, and a sinister, sexual MC in a ball gown encourages you to separate from your companions, pushing batches of people out at each storey. From then on you make your own way through the world you enter. You are given a slip of paper at the entrance which alludes to a possible story — an already shaky couple get into trouble when one of them has an affair, and it leads to murder (it's based on Büchner's Woyzeck).

Once inside the building, you stumble in the pitch black from set to set — a Western town square with bars and a fountain, a rundown motel, a weatherbeaten cottage, a huge 1950s car, a malevolent night forest, set about with caravans, a head-doctor's surgery, a film set that seems to stage a locker room, a cocktail bar and a domestic interior, a horseshoe-shaped saloon bar, and a desert on the top floor — it is too much to take in, and you don't know what you are witnessing, as the actors move around you, and you move around the setting, momentarily caught up in whatever story fragment they are busy with.

At all times, the soundscape is lowering and terrifying, heavy and Lynchian. At moments you might see a scene repeated. At others you try to follow an actor from place to place, never sure which part of the story you are in, certainly never chronological. At what becomes the end, the audience, all masked, is gently urged to a large room, with a conventional enough stage all along one side. All the actors, some of whom you will not even have encountered before, are assembled, encouraging the audience to sit down, so that their eyeline is below the level of the stage. The action comes to a threatening, convulsive climax — and the audience goes crazy. The ending reassures us all that we have indeed seen a play.

I emerged desperate to piece together what I had seen, unsure whether I had got it right, seen everything I should have done, gone about the performance the right way. I was envious of the actors' bodies, their intense sexuality, their beauty, I'd wanted to be part of the show, sucked in even further. I couldn't make sense of it, felt angry and competitive.

But after a night's sleep, the narrative has fallen into place. All the ellipsis and fragmentation — your brain organises it into coherence for you. The brain is always busy housekeeping. The note at the start really helped, but it's not just that, it's the way we absolutely strive for order — I think what Punchdrunk do emulates the way the eye and our senses take in information from the flux and chaos of lived experience. Punchdrunk represents reality in utterly fragmented ways, then adds in a fragmented, uncontrolled audience, and the brain uncontrollably sets about looking for patterns, organising them according to previous experience, sorting, prioritising, and finally delivers its outcome, like a cat brings in a dead mouse for its owner's pleasure.

What also amazed me (paradoxically, given all the ellipsis) was the directness of the contact between actor and audience. There was so little dialogue, and words were used like dance steps, but the actors were so expressive with such little movements of their faces, and fleeting changes conveyed the 'story' of lust and betrayal as effectively as the structure of individual scenes themselves.

The intimacy was infinitely seductive — that sense of heightened reality, where anything might happen, where you had to be on your guard, you might injure yourself, fall over something, and yet you were also being held safely in a space, looked after in some way, and allowed to look at something deeply private. The connection to the passions — the jealousy, the sexual desire, the hatred, the murderous impulses, the sorrow, the fear, horror, fury, it was so immediate — all of that blew me away.

It felt like a liberation — so much of the day, that's exactly how I experience life, all these wavering passions washing about, in chaos, no organising principle, free radicals of toxic emotion without a home — you see it in people's expressions, in how they address each other, how they move, and I am so often overwhelmed by it, that sense of our inner lives flushing through us uncontrollably.

I thought The Drowned Man was a fantastic catharsis, that for once I was allowed to observe, it was expected of me. Whereas earlier this week, I went to an award party at the RSA, and felt completely desperate at being an observer -- I could see all the ambition, competition, egotism, crisscrossing the faces of the people there, felt repelled by it, knew that I was supposed to dive in and network, but of course it was taboo to talk about what had brought us all there.

That catharsis is what theatre should be about. That's why live theatre is important. And that's how I should be writing (even if I'm rubbish at it). Forget willed coherence, just rely on association to pull in the stories that people have told me, trust that this intuition will operate an organising principle of its own. For someone who saw all this reading Proust, I'm remarkably slow to try it out myself.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Death of the Tooth Fairy

When my little girl was very much littler, she began a correspondence with the tooth fairy.

Each time a tooth came out, the tooth fairy wrote back, no matter how busy or tired she was. It was quite a chore, remembering the world I'd constructed. Often it felt like a total pain in the neck, and I moaned about it, and about the Motherload that went with it — what was I trying to prove? That I was a Perfect Mother? I was an idiot, trapped in my own sentimentality. Rage rage, write write.

One day the tooth fairy even sent a photo of her shadow.

The little girl was utterly enchanted, and the correspondence grew apace.

This week, my daughter's last baby tooth, a molar, came out. We were staying with friends, and she said in dismay, "I'll have to write to the tooth fairy and say goodbye!" I felt secretly pleased — that was one chore out of the way then. Phew!

That night she wrapped the tooth in tissue paper, and slipped it under her pillow with her note.

Later, I went into her room to retrieve note and tooth. It woke her up. My hand was under the pillow, and I thought I'd grab what I'd come for anyway, and hope she was too groggy to realise. I'd done this before, all pleased with myself for the sweet deception.

I composed a long note, telling the little girl how special she had been to me, and how I would miss her and her letters. I found myself feeling sad — my husband read the letter in silence, and stared off into middle space.

Then I tiptoed into my daughter's bedroom with it.

She was awake. She said, "Mummy, I know why you're here." My stomach clenched tight. She switched the light on. "I felt your hand under the pillow." "Did you wait for me?" "Yes, I wanted to know."

We looked at each other for long seconds. Her childhood passed into me. My knowledge passed into her.

We went to tell Daddy. All three of us sat silent on the bed. "But I know Father Christmas is real," she said. We nodded, miserable.

I took her back to bed, and found tears forming in my eyes. In a moment, an entire phase of her life had ended, irrevocably. She will never again believe in the tooth fairy. She understands that she cannot go back. She understands that her mother has made up stories. She understands that she must get older. In the same breath, her knowledge is my mortality. A phase of my life has also ended. She is both more and less separate from me. She knows more of what I know. And she has secrets from me, she thinks things that I cannot fathom. She knows now that if I can perpetrate deception on her, she can do the same to me.

I, who had longed to be let off the hook of writing those endless late night letters about Fairyland, I went back to my bedroom and cried.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Jacqueline Rose on Mothers in the LRB

Jacqueline Rose's review of a recent glut of publishing on motherhood makes, as ever, brilliant and thought-provoking reading.

But, oh dear, I struggled to read it — not remotely because what she says is somehow inaccessible or highfaluting, or jargon-filled (the usual accusations made against 'academic' writing, mostly without bothering to read it). What she says is limpid and multi-layered, suggestive, provocative, and I agree with it. I struggled because there is just no bridge today between academia and other areas of life, and it causes me pain every day.

She opens on Tim Minchin's Matilda, noting the wry critique he offers of vicious perfectionism in childrearing. Music to my ears. Try, however, actually saying anything like this about Matilda in Muswell Hill. What it means here is the summer workshop at the local performing arts centre, populated by little girls, whose parents are assuring them constantly that they are (and must remain) miracles while pushing each other out of the way to film their own offspring. Were you to connect Matilda with contemporary parenting round here, people would avoid you as a pariah — or worse, a negligent mother.

And so I walk the streets feeling alone, not rich enough to afford all the soi-disant opportunities I am told I ought to be giving my children; deeply critical of the education system, but silenced within it as a parent — why is my child doing no academic work now, when SATs were in May and they don't break up till July? — why do I have to make arrangements to cope with yet another teachers' strike, while my daughter trails into school, bored and fed up with too little stimulation? I am not patient enough to spend all my own time and energy 'developing' my children — I'd rather they developed themselves; I long for my own life and time and space; I pay lip service to the compulsory orthodoxy of sharp elbows and anxiety. I feel unable to give voice myself to what Jacqueline so beautifully articulates from her position as a commentator, for fear of social exclusion, or worse, some indefinable impact on the children.

It is impossible, currently, to escape or rid yourself of the discourse of perfectionism in the mother and the child, impossible to live the alternative without constant punishment in the form of contempt, confusion, silence, being dropped. I am in the middle of Motherload. I know, although I feel alone, that I am not — there are others who think like I do. So why are there not million-mother marches chanting, "Stop blaming, exhausting and milking us!"? Because we are afraid of the attack that would ensue.

Jacqueline outlines the compulsory positivism in contemporary notions of mothering. It's well known that pure positivism is toxic to mothers and children, whether as maternal performance ("Oh things are going so well for little Jimmy!"), or as impact on the child ("He's such a high achiever!"). Yet I fight to accept being 'good enough', as a parent and a person, and for my children. I feel like a failure.

Here is where I totally agree with Jacqueline:
Today we are witnessing what Angela McRobbie has described as a ‘neoliberal intensification of mothering’: perfectly turned out middle-class, mainly white mothers, with their perfect jobs, perfect husbands and marriages, whose permanent glow of self-satisfaction is intended to make all the women who don’t conform to that image – because they are poorer or black or their lives are just more humanly complicated – feel like total failures. This has the added advantage of letting a government whose austerity policy has disproportionately targeted women and mothers completely off the hook. (Reference via Mothering and Motherhood in Ancient Greece and Rome by Lauren Hackworth Petersen and Patricia Salzman-Mitchell)
Here is what I think is Jacqueline's crucial question:
[…] what version of motherhood might make it possible for a mother to listen to her child? […]  if the term ‘mothers’ is a trigger for a willed self-perfection that crushes women as mothers, then how can mothers be expected to hear their children’s cry […]? 
If mothers are busy all the time justifying their right even to exist through relentless perfectionism, then what hope have they of hearing their children's real voices? So here is what most needs to change:
What do we expect when society continues to believe it has the right to trample over the mental lives of mothers?
The inner lives of mothers are crucial to the wellbeing of their own and all children. We don't need contented little babies as much as we need contented adult mothers and fathers. We need the latter to have a hope of the former.

This is Jacqueline's final wish:
As I was reading the outpourings of all these recent books on motherhood, it occurred to me that we need a version of this story for mothers, a version in which, without any need to deny everything else talked about here, the acute pleasure of being a mother would be neither a guilty secret, nor something enviously co-opted by bullies – ‘You will be happy!’ – but instead would be allowed to get on quietly with its work of making the experience of motherhood more than worth it.
I hope, more than anything, that Motherload can be that version.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

The Inner Life of Sophie Taylor, Prams in the Hall

Last night I went to Mudchute, and saw a brilliant play.

The Inner Life of Sophie Taylor is a play written and devised by Roisin Rae, for and with Prams in the Hall. It's been on this week at The Space, a fringe theatre on the Isle of Dogs with a fabulous bar.

Prams in the Hall is a theatre company that explicitly aims to be inclusive to people with children. They offer actors, directors and writers the option of having their children with them in the rehearsal space, and also offer flexible working hours. For audiences, they put on watch-with-baby performances, although it's crucial to stress that their work is for adults, not for children.

The Inner Life of Sophie Taylor is about a busy mum who is also an artist. She has not been able to work for six years — they have three children, whom she looks after while their father goes out to work. Out of the blue, she is asked to contribute to an exhibition, and desperately wants to make two new pieces, although she only has two months. Her husband encourages her to paint, and she tries, but cannot make progress while she is at home. Eventually she goes AWOL in order to get the work done, and refuses to say when she will be coming home. The exhibition opens, and she can glimpse greater success if she can stay the course. When her husband shows up with the kids, she tells him to take them home — she wouldn't bring them to his office. When interviewed she is categorial — she doesn't see why she has to justify her drive to work as an artist, and she doesn't care what others think of her. The interviewer is clearly shocked and disapproving.

Yet underground, her other inner life, her life as a mother, is also working on her, and eventually she can stand it no longer. She comes to her tight-lipped mother-in-law's house, desperate to see her children again. Her husband is distant and cold; her littlest child cries and turns away from her. She leans forward to hold the child to her, and the play suddenly ends.

What I loved about this piece was that it fluently combined experimentalism with naturalism. The three children were played — very well — by adult actors; the son and the father were played by the same actor. This was a lovely piece of defamiliarization: something like using puppets or masks in its break with reality, but also strangely realistic in its observation (adults are just large children?). The dialogue and action, when it focused on family life, was at moments reminiscent of Outnumbered, and just as funny, but it particularly drew out the bittersweet experience of the frustrated mother-artist.

It didn't ignore the husband/father figure, and he was presented as fundamentally loving and supportive of his artist wife, but he was part of the problem, to the extent that he could not understand the process of creation. When domestic life started to fall apart, as Sophie concentrated more on her work, he immediately reverted to defining 'work' as activity with financial recompense — something one does to pay the mortgage, with 'real life' going on elsewhere, and demanded that she get a 'little job'.

For an artist, life and work are particularly difficult to separate, since life supplies the work. Creative 'work' also requires an enormous amount of time, that appears to others to be wasted, with intense, exclusive bursts of productivity at inconvenient moments. This does not mean that all artists work in this Romantic way — many writers and artists keep regular working hours, and Twyla Tharp talks of this in The Creative Habit as the need for rituals which help artists enter the creative space.

Even if an artist physically works standard hours, however, she remains preoccupied by her work even when she is not actively constructing it. Like a mother, you cannot leave art behind as you can most jobs. The great problem for artist-mothers, then, is that making — gestating — a baby is akin to the process of making art, but actually producing a baby, unlike producing a book or a canvas or a film or a sculpture, which is the end of a process, is the rudest interruption of creative identity ever devised.

It does not mean that female artists do not love their children. Precisely the opposite — they are desperate because of that love. That mother love, like ivy, actually starves them of the nourishment they need to go on being what they also need to be — artists.

The outstanding device in this play was to represent the internal artist-mother split in Sophie by means of two actresses, one blonde and English (Roisin Rae), the other dark and Columbian (Elisa Terren).

At first, this split seemed neat and clear: the artist-self was the dark, foreign daemon, constantly seeking to reclaim the mother-self. The mother-self, controlled, contained, doing all the right things, chatted to the other mums at ballet, tried to have a conversation at the playground, listened to the litanies of classes, activities, failings, successes of other people's children, while trying not to cry with boredom. Occasionally she lost it when the kids got too much — always painful, always understandable.

However as the play went on, and Sophie's inner life took over, the artist bursting forth unstoppably from her like an alien, the mother-self went into decline. Sophie as artist had a new, inescapable inner life: the inner life of the mother, who cannot unmake her children or her connection to them, which is like invisible elastic, shorter or longer, but unbreakable. In the end, that wilting inner self resurged — she could not just be an artist, Sophie needed her children in order to be whole.

The play ends on this problematic — it tackles the question of social judgement by staging its ironies, and much of the audience's laughter is rueful recognition. But I wanted a second act — not necessarily an answer to the problems the play threw up, but to see what happened next. Did Sophie go on producing? Did her husband accept that 'supporting' his wife's work actually meant sharing the housework? Did he get over his preoccupation with the mortgage? Did he start to become more creative himself? Did they learn to work together? Were the children actually affected by her time away, and in what ways? Did Sophie compromise with a part-time job — would that help her creativity at all, or simply impede it? There are clearly as many answers as families, which is why no social policy or social judgement ever fits completely. But the play made enough universal points for me to be disappointed not to have more of it. I know that the tension the play identifies, that conflict between the artist and the mother, is permanent, that it is not reconcilable. At its broadest, it is the conflict between the mother and the world. Never again will she have 'nothing to lose'. At all times she stands to lose everything. She is for ever vulnerable. Maternity has taught me to accept that both inner and inter-personal conflict exists, and cannot be eradicated, but it has not yet taught me how to live with that.

I loved The Inner Life of Sophie Taylor, and the work that Prams in the Hall are doing — they refuse to make concessions to the pragmatism that sees women so often excluded from all kinds of cultural spaces once they are mothers, or confined to marginal strands of it ('Activity Half Term at the Tate!' — oh God, shoot me now). May they experiment, innovate, evolve and thrive.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Fourteen, a new one-woman play by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti

Last night I went to Watford. There was a good reason – an old friend of mine from college days was doing a one-woman play at the Watford Palace Theatre. Getting into Watford is like driving into Solaris, a one-way spiral to concrete hell. The Palace car park is a triumph of function over design, lowering across the town centre like a premonition of the world's end. I had to do the circuit at least twice to get into it.

Once I was in the theatre, things brightened up a lot – the Palace is a cheerful Edwardian theatre covered in gilt and red velvet, with comfortably bulging balconies. There I sat with my plastic glass of beer, resplendently alone on my night out, waiting to see my lovely friend perform.

Fourteen is a kind of cross between The Diary of Adrian Mole and Kindertransport. It's about a girl with brilliant academic promise growing up in Watford in 1984. She is an only child, and her parents seem to fight a lot. We see her upstairs in her bedroom, chatting to us as though we were the pages of her diary, trying to make sense of sex, scholarship and shouting.

The second act of the play is set in the same town in 2014, and brings us bang up to date. The girl is now a woman. She is a cleaner, bitching endlessly and enviously about her clients, who seem incompetent, patronising and pointlessly wealthy. She has a daughter, on whom she dotes. She constantly helps the girl with her homework. Something has gone very wrong. Why is she 'only' a cleaner, taking cash in hand and signing on at the same time? What has happened to her promise?

As the monologue goes on, we begin to grasp the grim tragedy underlying her change in fortunes. She is stoical and proud, will not accept defeat even though she can see for herself the crashing fall in the status she seemed to be heading for. The ending is bittersweet – it is undecidable whether we should pity or celebrate her.

Yasmin Wilde was just fabulous in the role — to be forty and play fourteen, that's quite something. Her hair in bunches, wearing school uniform, sitting cross-legged on the floor, it could all have been so Daisy Pulls it Off, but it wasn't. Instead, I had that strange confusion you get when you watch people you know acting – which bit is her, and which bit is put on? The writing was so naturalistic that at times Yas didn't seem to be acting at all… but of course that's why she was so good.

Afterwards I hovered about waiting to congratulate her. A couple of people seemed to be waiting as well, but I was too shy to go up to them. When Yas emerged, I realised it was another college acquaintance, together with Yas's husband, whom I'd never met. We repaired to the Watford Wetherspoons, giggling over diet coke and crisps at a high table, as they got the karaoke ready at the far end. The place was full, nothing else was open.

What had punched me in the gut during Yas's performance was the mother-daughter relationship in the second act – although the show is a one-woman play, and we never meet the daughter, herself now turning fourteen, we feel her presence throughout Act 2. The daughter is ashamed of her mother's lowly status, despite all her hard, hard work to raise her well. She is angry when she discovers that her mother does not have a 'proper' job, but signs on – and has deceived her about it. She does not understand. The daughter's shame infects the mother, until she too is ashamed of herself. It was brutal to watch. Is this what I have in store? My daughter's disappointment in me?

We sat there in Watford Wetherspoons: Yas, a fantastic actress, now with children; her friend, also a brilliant actress, now with children; me, a one-time academic, with children; and Yas's husband, a lawyer. With a wife and children.

The three women discussed how gruelling it is to sustain an artistic career after children, the unworkable economics, childcare letdowns, time away, the guilt and unhelpful attitudes – art, apparently, is not 'real' work (except to those who do it). We understood that the men we knew, all those men at college with us, had, somehow, not had these impediments and interruptions (even if they had had children).

We all identified both with the cleaner mother, and with her rich clients. We had all been educated to expect to be successful: economically, in career terms, in our relationships. And be successful as a result of our own very hard work. At 18-21, we had it all. Ahead of us. Yet in our mid-forties, our creative aspirations, which had not been dreams but worked-for realities during our twenties and thirties, were compromised by starting families, and finding out the hard way that there is no support for mothers.

As we walked into the empty, fluorescent-lit car park, I fumbled to say something about this. Yas's friend looked me directly in the eye and said, "Yes, I know. It took me about twenty years to accept it was OK to be ordinary". We got into our cars, and drove out of the multi-storey car park into the night.

It's not OK.

Never give up.