Saturday, 15 February 2014

What's in a name?

I had a fascinating exchange of texts with a friend yesterday.

She felt that I should be writing under my real name, which is Ingrid Wassenaar. I replied that I was keen to write under a pseudonym, Ingrid Kirkegaard, because I married a man with that surname, and it has always struck me as hilarious. He is an Aussie, utterly irreverent, charming, lightning quick, and always says of his own name that, "It's unfortunate that the real Søren Kierkegaard only sired bastards". One of the many things I find funny is the sheer number of 'a's in our names.

When we married, many friends asked whether we would have a double-barrelled surname. We laughed, and just said that I wasn't changing my name. In Holland, it's usual for married women to add their husband's name to their own, as a kind of patronymic. It seemed too cumbersome for us, and I didn't see why I had to go around adjusting my name on every official document — it was bad enough getting my title changed to 'Dr'.

When it came to naming our children, we made all sorts of problems for ourselves. I suggested it would be a good idea to have my surname as one of their middle names, to inscribe their heritage inside their names. Not something we'd have to announce, but perhaps a memory of my father.

I wanted our daughter to have her father's surname, although — and because — we were not married when we had our first baby. I'd been pregnant and actually given birth, and it seemed to me, whatever my notions of patriarchy, churlish not to enable my partner to lay his claim to our daughter.

And it was, in fact, my decision to make. Because if you are not married, then in order to be recognised as the father of your child, the man must physically come with the mother to register the baby's birth, and assert his paternity. Without this presence, the mother's name is given to the newborn.

In the dusty registry office, passing our firstborn from lap to lap to stop her crying, I leaned forward and asked whether we could just put my surname on the same line as her real surname, although she'd be known publicly by her father's name.

This was agreed — and it was not until we had to apply for her first British passport, followed by Australian citizenship and passport, that we realised what my little moment of nostalgic vanity had done. My definition of 'public' was not the same as the Passport Office's. Her surname, according to the letter of the public record, was, in fact, officially Wassenaar Kirkegaard. We laughed at ourselves, but were not unduly worried. In practice she would be a Kirkegaard with a funny Dutch middle name.

When we married, we were just about to leave for Australia. My husband went ahead and I spent several weeks applying for Permanent Residency. As part of that exercise, I went back to the Registrar to ask for our daughter's birth certificate to be updated to reflect our married state. In fact there is no visible change on the certificate itself, but I wanted the (underlying) record to reflect reality. She was still officially Wassenaar Kirkegaard.

For several years this was all a joke that we ruefully told against ourselves — until the day that we were nearly not allowed to board a flight out of Adelaide with our daughter, because the name on the ticket was not exactly the same as the name on her passport. It was then that we understood that we had saddled our infant with a serious problem.

When we returned to the UK after our time in Australia, I went back a third time to the Registrar. I wanted to change her name officially, and thought I needed to go back to the source of the problem. But I had unwittingly used up all my go's. I was allowed to change it once, and had done so to reflect marriage. From now on, I would need to change her name by Deed Poll, and she might need to present both her birth certificate and her name change if required.

And that is what I did. I paid for her name to be changed from 'WASSENAAR KIRKEGAARD'  to 'Wassenaar KIRKEGAARD'. She is now the proud owner of a Danish-Australian last name, and a Dutch middle name.

We didn't make the same mistake when our son was born (instead I had to spend half my pregnancy proving the degree of my Britishness, in order to confer it on him and his children, because I was naturalised British and giving birth in Australia. Who knew?).

When my friend questioned why I wasn't writing under my real name, I started to think about it. Superficially, it was because I loved the irony of adopting the philosopher's name 'Kierkegaard' as my pen name, while being in fact married to a Kirkegaard. But it goes much deeper than that.

I do not have a surname.

Wassenaar is my father's name. My mother's maiden name was Lawrence. This is her father's name. Her mother's maiden name was Glibbery — which I loved, because it showed the traces of Dutch Huguenot in my mother, apparently English through and through. Glibbery was my grandmother's father's name.

Under patriarchy, the woman is given away by her father to her husband's family. She leaves her birth family completely and becomes a member of her husband's family. This is still inscribed everywhere in our culture, whether in religious terms or in bureaucratic terms.

I do not feel that this is what I have done. I have three families: the one I was born into, the one I have been introduced into by my husband, and the family he and I have created.

So what is my name?

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Time of the Month

How do I bring this experience to an end? I have just been given the most generous gift possible by my husband, my children, and my friends — a month, by myself, in the country.

To come away from my everyday life for a whole, fire-filled, walk-soaked, wind-wakened month, to be able to write exactly what I wanted and have been trying to write for so very long — the release from a bottle I have to stuff myself inside most of the time — has been… calm.

The whole point about being here has been its understatement. To be able to escape the hysteria of exams, schools, Forest School clothes, what Doris Lessing calls 'the housewife's disease' through her character Anna Wulf in The Golden Notebook:
The tension in me, so that peace has already gone away from me, is because the current has been switched on: I-must-dress-Janet-get-her-breakfast-send-her-off-to-school-get-Michael's-breakfast-don't-forget-I'm-out-of-tea.-etc. 
Each morning I have been able to wake when I need to, lie in bed and start to think about… anything, my dreams, where I left the writing the day before, the themes that might come up today; not grappling with problems that are barking right in front of my face, but able to use the reflective, intuitive part of my mental apparatus that works without our struggling with it. That can only work when we are not struggling and stressed.

The anger I feel at the way mothers are laughed at for losing their memories — no other role in the social order requires as much use of working, short and long-term memory as motherhood.

Why should motherhood automatically mean being utterly exhausted? Why should that be its badge of honour? Exhaustion causes ill-health. Do we want mothers to be essentially ill most of the time? I look at the Lessing quotation above and think, "Anna Wulf had it easy back in bra-burning 1962 — she could send her primary age child to school. We are forced by busy roads and social fears to walk or drive or cycle our children to school — not to do so is seen as irresponsible, negligent, abusive — and we are told (through looks and tuts) that we must like our freshly imposed maternal chores, regardless of what else we need to be doing with our time."

The extension of the duties of the mother in the postmodern age is in direct proportion to the emergence of females into public life. The more we come out, the more is asked of us at every age — our daughters are to be brilliant, beautiful, feminine, (and self-destructive cutters and anorexics with sexual and substance issues — that side well-hidden, and so sad, of course). We, the mothers, are expected to be Working All Hours, Successful, Competent, and simultaneously at home doing everything else. I don't know why: we earn no respect whether we do or we don't fulfil this role perfectly. Our own mothers (older, and so, of course, invisible) look at us in bewilderment, telling us "it wasn't like that in their day". We look at our mothers and wonder why we have tried so very hard to succeed, wonder whether our success has not turned around to bite its own tail.

Coming home from being a mother in the country, I am not at the end of a month of freedom, returning to prison.

This, for me, is the beginning of a new life, in which I practise what I preach. My children will do more for themselves. I will not help them in every little matter. I will not intervene as soon as they struggle. I will let them make some mistakes. I will turn the control and discipline that I have internalised as a mother into the control and discipline I need to keep writing once I'm back in the saddle. I will be present in one place, and will not split myself into my mothering self, and some separate identity called my working self. They are continuous with each other.

I am, whether I thought that's what I was choosing or not, the core of the family —and that is not the same as inequality. I want true equality, but for me that means nothing less than the liberation of all men and women from the tired mantra of "work harder, be more productive, spend more, look more successful!" It's nonsense, it doesn't work.

Men and women need to work shorter hours, share jobs, work closer to home, have access to great, cheap childcare. The government needs to fund that childcare. It doesn't last for ever, but many people will need it in their lifetimes, like pensions. Raising a child is not a 'lifestyle choice'. Employers need to move their attitudes out of the 1950s, and accept that flexible working is the way forward. Schools need to offer wraparound care, and stop training days in term time. There needs to be less playground presenteeism – stop guilt-tripping parents into coming to every single performance — have fewer of them! Spend the time reading and writing! And for pity's sake, stop testing the children to extinction. It's not as though there aren't models for this all over the world. The real solution to many of the social problems we are facing is the housing market. Equalise the housing market between North and South, stop the rhetoric of home ownership, cap rents, and you will eradicate the kind of housing hysteria that also adds to the motherload. Keep pleasures simple, and they will remain pleasurable, rather than turning into decadence. Listen more, stay off screens. It's not difficult.

I'm coming home.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014


I've never really understood the fuss about the Theory of Relativity. Essentially Albert Einstein took the idea of 3D and thought, "What would this look like over time?"

Time is the obvious fourth dimension. What complicates time — I guess this is the bit that I would call poetry or Proust and Einstein would call physics — is our experience of it. We understand that time passes because coasts erode, buses leave without us, and because we used to be children and will die.

What we find much harder to understand and explain is that a single moment can feel as if it has expanded to infinity, and conversely, that we have no memory of our babies, now seven, now ten, now teenage, now adult, now gone. They rush through our fingers, and leave photos behind, but we cannot remember them as they were.

Our children are like palimpsests — my daughter boils down to a steady stare, over the edge of her nasty plastic cot in UCH hospital, the night after I delivered her. Days passing like sand have sedimented that stare, fossilised it for me, and add up in the hourglass to a long-legged colt with the same huge eyes and all-seeing gaze.

In that sense, relativity takes on a gut-churning, mind-addling meaning: being someone's relative means being relative to them, means being two trains passing each other at different speeds.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Maternal jealousy

I was watching Bridesmaids (2011) again tonight, and was reminded of a fabulous scene: Annie's Pity Party, and the pep talk she gets from Megan.

We have watched Annie be edged out by a competitive female, Helen, who has stolen her best friend, Lillian, and her rightful place as Lillian's Maid of Honor, trumping Annie at every stage of the wedding preparations with lavish outlay, and making her look a fool if ever she does get the chance to organise anything.

Annie has, to boot, lost her cupcake business, her flat, her new job in a jewellery shop, her car, her nascent relationship with a new man, and has had to move back in with her mother.

She is sitting on her mum's sofa in the daytime, watching Castaway and crying, when in comes Megan, sister of the groom, with the nine puppies she has taken from the bridal shower party. Megan has witnessed Annie's tribulations, although until this point we have no sense that she understands or sympathises with Annie.

Megan leaps on top of Annie, and tells her, "I'm your shitty life, Annie, I'm going to bite you in the ass, I'm gonna make you fight for your shitty life," poking her, slapping her, and provoking her until finally Annie defends herself and slaps Megan in the face.

Megan tells her own life story: she was bullied at school because of the way she looked, but she refused to be beaten, studied really hard and is now incredibly successful (although she does not flaunt her wealth as the bride stealer does). We, who have laughed at Megan throughout the film, for her barrel body, butch behaviour, and apparent oblivion to feminine decorum, are shown up.

It's such a fabulous moment in this already fabulous film — Bridesmaids is a study in female envy, made all the better by being framed in Romcom puffery. We have been with Annie all the way, hating Helen the friend stealer for her manipulative sweetness towards Lillian, and her sly exclusion of the much poorer Annie by throwing more and more money at the wedding. We know it's not fair, we feel, like Annie, that she is a victim, we are angry on her behalf, we identify with her, and forgive her her little misdemeanours. It's sweet and klutzy that she hasn't mended her brake lights, as her policeman boyfriend repeatedly told her to do — she's a creative airhead, it's not her problem! But when she is forced into an emergency stop, the driver behind her rearends her car, and drives off, and although he is technically in the wrong, it is as much her fault as his for not taking responsibility.

Megan forces Annie to take responsibility for her own life, to start dealing with her problems one by one, not through sympathy, but through making her confront her own complicity in the situation. She makes Annie grow up.

To my mind, there is an unsettling but instructive connection between this scene, which explodes the myth that it's always the bitchy woman's fault, and the kinds of misunderstandings that characterise contemporary relationships between mothers. So she's a rich and successful lawyer, with four gorgeous children, and manages to make it all work — although she's away a lot of the time! So she's a stay-at-home mum, who handsews costumes for all her children's performances — although she suffocates them with her incessant helicopter parenting! The lawyer may have had several miscarriages before she ever had those babies. The stay-at-home mother may have come from an abusive family and desperately wanted to do things differently.

Annie takes an instant, envious dislike to the seemingly perfect Helen, and this blinds her to clues that all is not as it seems — Helen's stepchildren make no secret of loathing her, and she is alone with her wealth. She cannot understand that Helen's motivation in stealing Lillian is itself based on envy — envy of the close friendship that Annie and Lillian share.

There is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of jealousy and envy which operates at the heart of many mothers' relationships with each other. We are envious of what others have, and this makes us competitive. We jealously guard what we fear to lose, and this makes us possessive.

In having children, we are transformed into the jealous guardians of infants too fragile to care for themselves — jealousy sends down its golden bars around us, and seals us in. Prowling within the anxious cage of our jealousy, we become lonely and nervous.

The paradox of jealousy is that it makes us believe that others want to destroy what we have as desperately as we ourselves want to keep it safe. It is jealous love for our own children that makes us lash out at others before they have a chance to do our precious possessions harm.

I think this is why mothers are so often spiteful to each other in a way that seems envious of what others have. When we stop to think we wouldn't actually swap our lives with theirs, we don't actually want what they have — we want above all to have freedom to live our own lives — but we nevertheless, and irrationally, fear that they, others, might be out to attack us.

This very primitive fear is even more heightened in the modern era, when women no longer carry out the caring role in the same way, but make different — crucially, different economic — choices over how to do the same thing: bring up children successfully.

Yet it takes so little to break out of these psychological cages. One way is shown, by analogy, in Bridesmaids: to confront our 'envy' and see it for what it really is, a displaced jealous fear for the wellbeing of our own children. Then we can take stock of our feelings, and laugh at them. How quickly they dissolve in that clear light.