Friday, 13 November 2015

Tiger Child

Picture the scene: I was just getting a roast chicken and trimmings out of a hot oven, when my daughter sidled up behind me and told me she'd had a bad test score. My mother was hovering in the background, my son was creating merry hell somewhere nearby. I had five minutes between dropping him back from an activity, before I headed off to his school for a parents' evening. 

Dear Reader, what do you think my reaction was? 

Sadly, no, it wasn't the measured, calm, 'Oh dear, darling, never mind, I'm sure you'll do better next time – what do you think went wrong?'

No. I looked down, and all I could see was that the trimmings were overcooked – blackened, actually – and I lost my temper.

I stormed off out of the house, and my husband found me, fuming as I looked through son's books, predicting dire reports and spitting tacks about the National Curriculum.




I emerged from son's class with a renewed respect for teachers, the sense that they understand his little ways, and that they have somehow developed that understanding within six weeks of exposure to him. Kudos. 

I went home a little calmer, and pottered about clearing up. Then just as my daughter was going to bed, she whispered from the top of the stairs that she'd had her school report, and was really pleased with it. 

All the air went out of me, standing at the foot of the stairs and looking up at her little worried face – why hadn't she said anything before? Why had she told me about some unimportant test result, when the bigger picture was actually fine? 

But I knew why. I'd blown a gasket, and she was terrified. Of me.

This morning, I was trying to talk to my mother, my long-suffering, patient mother, who does nothing but listen to my endless list of woes. As I went back over the events of the previous evening, I started to cry, realising the harm I'd done. What on earth had made me explode?

But of course, there she was, my old friend perfectionism. What had I been doing? Trying to cook a perfect chicken, while simultaneously out of the house taking son to breakdance, while reading King Lear, while rushing back to find it burnt, while beating myself for failing to cook a special meal for my mother. And what ingredient had I forgotten? Calm. Not just a sprinkling of it, but a great, saturating sauce of calm. 

Yes, my daughter probably could have chosen a better moment to tell me about the test. But she's twelve. Yes, my mother might have been able to save the potatoes. But I didn't ask her to check – no, I wanted to prove to her that I had it All Under Control. Yes, I could have chosen to cook pasta. But I wanted to Do Something Nice for Mum.

And it had all blown up in my face. I'd ruined the meal – not because it was burnt, but because I'd lost my rag and upset everyone else. 

As I talked, and my mum said nothing, and just listened, the spectres of woes past began to present themselves, like the procession of kings that appear to Macbeth, each one showing me my hand in my own destiny. 

My mother is the only real witness to the fact that she was never a Tiger mother, I was a Tiger child. I found maths difficult at secondary school, in part because we were never actually taught. The teacher, who looked like a grumpy toad with a lorgnette, sat at the front of the class, and we were expected to work through the SMP maths books, silently and alone. To go up and ask for help was quite clearly a humiliating sign of weakness. I didn't find maths as easy as the girl who sat next to me (who ended up studying maths at Oxford), so I went home and bullied myself into going over and over stuff until I cried. I ruined one Christmas holidays by trying to do Chapters 5 and 6 of one of those wretched books, in tears every day, until my father could stand it no more and shouted at me. It wasn't my parents asking me to do this – it was me. They used to try to make me stop working. 

So why, thirty plus years later, did I explode, with a steaming chicken in my hands, and my daughter's anxious words in my ears? 

Because at some level, I am so desperate to protect her from pain, yet such a relentless bully to myself, that I become her pain. I could not stand the feeling of failure in myself as a little girl, and so I whipped myself on and on until I met my own standards, regardless of the impact on those around me.

My daughter is not me, and thank goodness. She has quite normal reactions to not being particularly hot at maths – she avoids it. That's not to say, of course, that she shouldn't be trying a bit harder to work out what it is she doesn't understand so she can ask for help with it. What she doesn't need, though, is my overweening anxiety and perfectionism ripping through her quiet attempt to tell me what was happening. 

The longer I live, the more I realise that I was born with that feeling of never being good enough, that it did not originate outside me, that it WAS me. And that never feeling good enough is at the heart of all the bullying that I have experienced. It began with my relationship to myself. 

And unless I accept that I am good enough as I am, I am set fair to ruin my daughter's growing sense of self. I can put down my Motherload tomorrow if I only, only accept myself. I only hope it is not too late. 

Thursday, 12 November 2015

The Taming of the Shrew or The Modern Marriage

The last main speech of The Taming of the Shrew (written around 1590-94) has always confused me. 

It's the speech in which Katherina seems to prove to the assembled guests that she is entirely tamed, and obedient to her husband's wishes, even if this is at the expense of her own mind, heart and reason. 

It is a huge forty-three lines long, beating out again and again the many ways in which women are inferior to men, because a man is 'thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,/Thy head, thy sovereign'. 

Women who are 'mov'd' into being scornful, says Kate, are like 'a fountain troubled,/Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty'. While men commit themselves to 'painful labour both by sea and land', women simply lie 'warm at home, secure and safe'. 

When a woman is 'froward, peevish, sullen, sour,/And not obedient to his honest will', she is a 'foul contending rebel,/And graceless traitor'. Because women's bodies are, supposedly, 'soft, and weak, and smooth,/Unapt to toil and trouble in the world', this necessarily means, she argues, that women's 'soft conditions' should agree with their 'external parts': they should be soft, because they look soft. 

There is only one easily identifiable point at which Katherina seems to be about to renege on her newfound identity as the loving, obedient proponent of the marriage vows ('they are bound to serve, love, and obey'). She suddenly seems to switch tack, lashing out in grief at what she has lost:

My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more,
To bandy word for word and frown for frown.
But now I see our lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.
She seems, at first, angrily confident that her mind was once 'big', her heart 'great' and her reason greater. It is unclear, though, whom she is addressing. The first two-thirds of the speech seem to be directed solely at the other women on stage, her sulky sister Bianca, and the shrewish Widow. Yet 'yours' in line 171 is ambiguous – does she mean her mind has been as big as another woman's, or as a big as a man's? To whom is she now speaking? Perhaps to everyone in the room. Something has changed, re-directed or just crushed her self-belief, but it is not clear what. She simply says, 'But now I see'. How has she changed the way she sees, from a big mind and heart, to 'seeming to be most which we indeed least are'? Katherine's taming is completely contained in 'But now I see'. 

Shakespeare leaves the speech wide open to be interpreted either with or against its apparent grain. We are, on the face of it, supposed to celebrate Katherina's return to the fold, her understanding of what is good for her, the epiphany of good sense which has helped her recognise the 'debt' and 'duty' she owes her husband. 

Yet… yet… we are left uneasy, not least by the penultimate couplet of the speech:

Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband's foot.
There is no boot, no advantage in rebelling, she says, and urges her fellow women to place their hands, in a symbolic gesture, beneath their husband's feet, in a show of submission and vulnerability. 'Boot' and 'foot', with their hard plosive 't' sounds, seem to cut off all disagreement – yet the rhyme is a poor one: the inbuilt discrepancy between the long 'o' of boot' and the short 'o' of foot carries all the uneasiness. Bringing 'boot' and 'foot' together in this rhyme also carries a play on words. The boot, the advantage, is all the husband's. Yet, the language seems to breathe, if husbands are given all the marital power in this way, woe betide a woman if she disobeys. For the boot of marriage, if it does not fit the man's foot well, is likely to irritate him, and he may take it out on her. 

The 'shoe of marriage' reminds us of the ebullient and rebellious Wife of Bath. Chaucer was writing the Canterbury Tales between 1387 and 1400, a full two hundred years before Shakespeare. The Wyf makes a typically irreverent joke at the expense of one of her (five) husbands:

For, God it woot, he sat ful ofte and song,
Whan that his shoo ful bitterly hym wrong.
She laughs at her husband moaning whenever the shoo – their marriage – was too tight for him. Obedience to the husband does not seem to be a factor here. So why is it at the end of the Elizabethan era – an era in which England was ruled by a husbandless queen?


It is not safe to argue about Kate's final speech, as the editor of the Arden Shakespeare does in his introduction to the 1981 edition, that 'Shakespeare cannot possibly have intended it to be spoken ironically' (p. 146). 

Brian Morris himself goes on to say, despite this confident declaration, that Petruchio's response is 'almost as if he is lost for words', and 'one of the most moving and perfect lines in the play' – 

Why, there's a wench! Come on, and kiss me, Kate. 
Quite how this unsophisticated mumble can be called 'moving and perfect' is beyond me. I can see alliteration, and a caesura after two iambs. However it's hardly the tragic lament of:
My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
or the complex layering and intensity of: 
A woman mov'd is like a fountain troubled,
Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty.
Morris's insistence that Shakespeare meant the speech to be spoken straight can, I think, be disregarded as so much bluster, undermined by the simplest textual analysis. 

That said, it remains troubling, even astonishing, to find out that Germaine Greer in The Female Eunuch also sees V, ii of The Shrew as a positive statement about marriage. 

Greer suggests that what is going on in the speech is ironic, but not at the expense of men, or women. She reads it as a private message between Kate and Petruchio, a demonstration of her love for him. She is prepared to give the public what they want – obedience from women in marriage – because what is happening in private is an equal relationship, full of mutual respect, sexual satisfaction and joy. 

For Greer, Kate's speech is Shakespeare's earnest defence of marriage as a difficult mode of living, demanding mutual respect and tolerance:

Kate […] has the uncommon good fortune to find Petruchio who is man enough to know what he wants and how to get it. He wants her spirit and her energy because he wants a wife worth keeping. He tames her like he might a hawk or a high-mettled horse, and she rewards him with strong sexual love and fierce loyalty. […] The submission of a woman like Kate is genuine and exciting because she has something to lay down, her virgin pride and individuality. […] Kate’s speech at the close of the play is the greatest defence of Christian monogamy ever written. It rests upon the role of a husband as protector and friend, and it is valid because Kate has a man who is capable of being both, for Petruchio is both gentle and strong (it is a vile distortion of the play to have him strike her ever). The message is probably twofold: only Kates make good wives, and then only to Petruchios; for the rest, their cake is dough. There is no romanticism in Shakespeare’s view of marriage. He recognized it as a difficult state of life, requiring discipline, sexual energy, mutual respect and great forbearance; he knew there were no easy answers to marital problems, and that infatuation was no basis for continued cohabitation.
Greer believes that what the audience sees is a coded public concession to conformity and convention, within which runs a joyous private communication: 'I will tame my wild spirit if you will be my protector and friend'.  

She argues that there is no romanticism in this view of marriage, and yet it seems to me the most overtly Mills and Boon definition of the love match. 


I feel completely torn. On the one hand, I sit 'warm at home, secure and safe' because my own husband, who was man enough to know what he wanted and how to get it, tamed me, and is currently committing his body to painful labour in central London. On the other, the way this happened was via the demolition of my career (not at his hands, I hasten to add), and a decade of frustrating and often frustrated attempts to find another way forward towards an income and fulfilment, while we raise a family. 

My own experience of marriage is emphatically not that I have been required to be obedient by a man. It is that our marriage has been threatened by the stresses affecting both of us as both of us committed our bodies to painful labour. So often, one or other of our working lives has been assaulted by workplace schemers, global recessions and family-unfriendly hours. That, and unequal pay.

It is no longer true that women sit 'warm at home, secure and safe' in marriage. These days, we're all supposed to be out working, whether we want to or not. The modern Katherina and the modern Petruchio do not have to conform to a hierarchical model of marriage, thank goodness. In the West, we marry for love, not a dowry or land ownership, and we expect to (or have to) go on working. 

But working out how that works when you both work – and when there are children involved – I'd like to see Shakespeare have a go at that last speech. 

It's not obedience that's needed now, but respect. 

Friday, 6 November 2015

Going Dutch

Someone posted this piece in the Washington Post by Mihal Greener, an Australian writer raising her family in Holland, on my Facebook page this morning.

It made me want to cry.

According to the April 2013 findings by UNICEF in their report 'Child well-being in rich countries: a comparative overview', Dutch children are the happiest in the world.

I'd heard about this report, and about Mihal Greener, a couple of years ago, when UNICEF first published this finding, but somehow it made a greater impact this morning. 

Perhaps it's because yesterday I stood in the dreary, wet playground and endured two mothers, one each side of me, making endless less-than-subtle digs about status, work and motherhood in the minutes before pickup, without ever actually asking each other a question. I'd had a very nice day, working from home, getting on with stuff. After five minutes of playground pleasantries, I felt like a collapsed balloon.


Recently my twelve-year-old daughter realised that one of her friends is a Taker. This particular young lady takes every utterance around her, and replays it through her own self-obsession. If someone says, 'Mutual friend X is feeling sick', Trainee Taker will say either, 'Oh! I feel sick too!' or 'Eew, that makes me feel sick!'. 

Daughter and I discussed whether 'talking about yourself' is always taking. We wondered whether one should essentially be utterly self-effacing at all times. After all, this is what centuries of culture told women they should be doing. Perhaps silence and self-effacement is the only answer in a world of bitching and gossiping.

We concluded, however, that it is possible to talk about yourself and not be a Taker. If you extend your interlocutor's experience by sharing your own, develop the conversation, reassure the other person (who has, quite probably, just said something that makes them feel vulnerable), you can keep the whole circle of life moving without maiming, killing, ignoring or climbing on top of the other. 

Tell that to a bunch of mums waiting in the playground. After fully nine years of Playground Politics, I can honestly say it has become no more comfortable. It's still like walking into an office after you've been made redundant. You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of mothers who consciously do not engage in the put-down games that seem to hold sway for most. That doesn't mean I don't have friends at my children's school. It just means that the playground feels like verbal trench warfare a lot of the time. But it's so completely normalised that I bet most people would be surprised that they are doing it, and probably just think it's the way of the world. 

What's it all based on? Essential insecurity about the position of mothers in contemporary British society.

How can I assert this? For one, because my life used not to feel like this before I had children. For two, in other countries, like Holland, but also Australia, mothers don't seem to be exhibiting this kind of neurotic behaviour. They seem — and it's only a generalisation of course — but they seem to like themselves, their bodies, their homes, their jobs, their bicycles, their cheese and their children. 

Their children, who are going to grow up into the tallest people on earth, despite not ruling out dairy from their diets. 

Their children, who are also going to have a life expectancy of, on average, 81.4 years, with a world life expectancy ranking of 17. 

Happiest, tallest, among the longest-lived. 

What are they doing to make that happen? 

According to Mihal Greener, they're not doing anything. 

They're not stressing, they are not overworking (themselves or their children), they don't have to pull so many late nights, they don't have to work all hours to make ends meet, they don't feel they have to one-up each other on clothes, gifts, kids' parties, food, thinness, holidays etc etc. They live calmer, more balanced lives than we do. They are valued, and they value themselves and their children. 

Meanwhile in Britain, we are currently condemning millions of women to years and years of furious drudgery, oneupmanship, workplace misery and mistrust, so-called multi-tasking, alienation, depression and lack of fulfilment. Once they become mothers. 

No mother, it goes without saying, is exempt from occasionally losing it. It's not nice, but it is a universal (because children push you to your wits' end, and because every life has stresses). I think that Mihal Greener herself would be quick to acknowledge that she's exaggerating for (comic) effect — that she, like me, is using the Dutch to hold her own culture to account. 

Having lived in Australia myself, however, I'm surprised that Greener finds such differences between herself and the Dutch. To me, Australian and Dutch women are remarkably similar. In Holland they say 'doe gewoon', and in Australia they 'just get on with it'. Either way, my personal experience of both countries is that mothers, whatever their work, are open, friendly, calm, competent, and don't exhibit the same social anxieties and insecurities that British mothers do. 

Time for a huge caveat, which also applies to Greener. I am sure that my — and her — observations originate in being the outsider. I also heard women discussing education in Australia in exactly the same competitive way I hear it all the time in the UK — it's just that *I* was relaxed about it at the time, because I wasn't in my own culture, and so wasn't targeted by the other women — quite simply, I didn't pose a threat to them, because I wasn't part of their system, fighting for the same scarce resources. I am sure that had we stayed in Oz to educate our kids, I would have found the same Motherload I do in the UK.

Call me half-Dutch, but I still idealistically think we should all be going Dutch on bicycles, eating hagelslag and kaas with a cheeseslicer for breakfast. Oh, and living in a society without a two-tier education system.