Monday, 28 September 2015

"What stops you from writing three hours a day?"

Dear Friend,

I went on holiday with you, to write. We had the most glorious week, sitting with computers and books out in the late summer Corfu sunshine, gin at six on the terrace, views of the cerulean Ionian Sea towards Albania, ruminating, me on Motherload, you on the Romantics. Each evening saw us sauntering towards a harbourside restaurant, where you laughed as I ate a lot of Greek Cheese Pie, and calamari that made me sick on the last night. We managed to eat at Gerald Durrell's villa, much to the envy of my children.

We returned together, with our small bags, sitting side by side on the flight, quietly reading, occasionally muttering to each other.

We parted at the baggage reclaim with a brief hug and kiss. I rolled my weekend bag away from you, did not look back, through customs, and out to the dreary tube back to Bounds Green.

At one point, you asked me a question, ministering to me as you were that week, making me tea, making me sit down and keep working, keeping me off Facebook, patiently listening, as my poor, poor husband has been forced to listen for five long years, to my attempts to articulate what I have to say about the state of motherhood. 

You asked me, "What exactly stops you from writing three hours a day?" And my mouth fell open. I did not know how to answer you. Both my children are at school. One of them takes the bus to school. A helper takes my son to school three times a week, and collects him once. We now, finally, finally, blessed relief, have a cleaner. I have, thus, several wives. What stops me writing?


I get up at 6am, with my daughter. I help her make her breakfast. I unpack the dishwasher – it's my daughter's job, but sometimes the fight isn't worth it – put on a wash, hang up the last wash, empty the recycling if it hasn't been done, make a packed lunch for son. Check email and texts, reply where necessary. Plan the day. Get son up. Force daughter through dressing or showering, send her back to wash hair or do teeth if she has 'forgotten'. Make sure she has bag packed, keys, bus pass, cash, phone. Had already tried to make her get that kit ready the night before, to great sighs and screams. Make sure son has kit/piano book, lunch, school bag, socks, head, as required. Get him to school, or get someone else to get him to school. Get, get, get. If I go to the school, I take a cake (baked the previous day) for the charity cake sale, help set up the stall, then run to an exercise class. I have to do exercise, I go crazy without it. 

Then I do admin. For the house, for the children, for my own work. I do my own work, teaching and consulting.

I plan and cook every meal we eat, down to each ingredient, which I go and buy once a week. Down to the homemade granola, the nutritionally-balanced lunches and dinners. I've been on a healthy eating campaign, and it's a constant fight to stop the kids (and myself) wading into the ocean of sugar that saturates everything sold to us. I barely understand it, am in a constant tizzy of choice, which makes me brutal and dictatorial at home.

In the evenings, at dinner, I sit with the children, reminding them (every three minutes) about their table manners, while trying to ask how their day was, sort out any problems, work out what's coming up. 

I run our finances.
I plan our repairs and our renovations.

I make sure the kids do their homework and their music practice (I don't do the work for them or with them – too much a recipe for misery – my husband helps, though).

I take Child 2 to several activities per week, around my teaching. Child 1 can get to her own now.
I look after Child 2 on the 6-8 teacher training days that the D of E allows schools to organize in the school term (what?). I look after the children during their half terms and their holidays, booking activities and treats to keep them occupied. Never enough. 

I sort out buying uniform and clothing (not for hubby: he's a grown man).

I fight the amount of time my daughter spends on social media, and I actively time how long my son sits on Minecraft. Then I fight him to get the iPad out of his hands.

I feed the cats. They don't answer back.
I garden.
I make pizza dough.
I sew on badges. I repair tears. I iron. I quite like ironing.

I book holidays, nights out, trips to the theatre, cinema, excursions of one kind or another, when I'm not completely exhausted. I manage my children's social lives with the help of iCal, one colour for each member of the family.

I am a governor at my daughter's secondary school.

I sort out bullying incidents. I'm on the end of the phone if son forgets stuff. Or if he falls over and must be collected. Even if there is nothing wrong with him.

I very rarely play with either child, which makes them sad, but I do read to Child 2, sometimes. It is my greatest pleasure. I go shopping with my daughter, because she loves it. I loathe it, but I know it makes her happy.

And that is the house that we built.


I am writing this on a bus, and have finished writing it in a cafe. That's how I get most of my writing done.

I make sure I sleep. I take herbal medicine and vitamins to stay bouncy.

My life is slowly, slowly coming back, as our children get older and learn how to do more without us. It was like a bomb going off, my choice, our choice to have children.

Three hours of writing a day? Perhaps not. But perhaps there's a need for less volunteering, the need to take a deep breath and rely on my several wives, let the money be spent to allow me to write, the need to encourage the children more firmly to do it for themselves.

You, my friend, encourage me to be ruthless. It is difficult to be an existential mother in an age of compulsory anxiety and critical judgement, and against one's own feelings (but what ARE the feelings of a mother?). But I assure you I am trying, and I will succeed.

Thank you for loving me enough to ask the question.

Here's to writing. 

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

The Mother of all Questions

Rebecca Solnit has published the most wonderful essay in Harper's Magazine this morning. She, or her editor, have also managed to give it the best title – 'The Mother of all Questions'. On the face of it her essay is a response to all the pigs who've ever hounded her for not having a baby, but it is so much more than that.

In it she comes up with an excellent term for the best way to respond to a closed, negative, spiteful question: to be rabbinical. I'm not sure that I could borrow that word, being so completely unJewish as I am. But I, too, long for a word for that way of being which allows you to respond to spite by gently reflecting it back, opening up its painful, mean little folds, and helping your hound to see a bigger picture.

I'm currently reading Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, a yearning love letter from a dying father to his future adult son. There is that same quality of mercy, and perpetual wonder, that in anyone else's hands would sound naive or sentimental. Reading Robinson is like sinking into a bath of relief – her depiction of humility makes up for the infinitely many times in which one has been humiliated.

Rebecca Solnit has bigger quarry than her hounds, however. She is interrogating the question of happiness. For Solnit, eudaemonics is perhaps misplaced – or rather its reduction to one kind of thing, one kind of life is the true enemy. As she points out, even if one diligently follows the cookie cutter version of the happy modern life, it is perfectly possible to be a mess of unhappiness; lots of people are. Conversely it is astonishingly possible to find happiness by following – truly, not half-heartedly – one's dreams. Perhaps one's dreams more than one's desires. Dreams are always vanishing, whereas we can give all too concrete a form to our desires, only to find them disappointing in their very materiality.

She reminds us that eudaemonics is, or used to be, all about the search for the good life, and the good life used to be about what we could do to give back to the society within which we had grown up, or what we might usefully leave behind.

In writing Motherload, I have been looking at the question of happiness through the looking glass, so to speak. I have been wondering how best to be happy as a mother, and my answer sounds like the opposite of Solnit's – that mothers must fight for their happiness. It sounds as if I'm demanding free spa days, doesn't it? Nothing could be further from the truth. I'm with Solnit.

I am talking about the full spectrum of what 'happiness' means: pleasure, delight, fulfilment, contentment, together with the freedom, time and place to seek them, and the community within which to do so.

I'm also talking about developing the courage to ask, calmly, surely, gravely for these things, in the face of social expectations that you immolate yourself in the service of your children once you become a mother.

Thank you, thank you, Rebecca Solnit, for being rabbinical.