Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Still dancing

I started both anti-depressants and dancing, back in Autumn 2009. I had come back from a summer holiday to see my husband's parents in Oz as depressed as I had ever been as an ill-treated lecturer at Cambridge. All I knew was that I had to do something to change the terrible way I was feeling.

This was also when I embarked on the idea for a book called Motherload. What I thought was going to be a year's work extended and multiplied, because, of course, I was still living Motherload as well as analysing it – because the children were still very young, because my husband's employment was so unstable for so long, because there was a global recession. I couldn't just sit down and research and write, and let everything else take care of itself. Well, I could and did for two glorious years in Australia. But that's another story.

After I was kicked out of Cambridge (for having a baby), I was forced to keep thinking up new ways to earn a living. First of all I switched careers completely. When management consultancy, although fast-paced and thrilling, proved impossible because of the hours, the workload, the travel and the cost of the nanny, I tried full-time employment, but at a much lower level than I was qualified for. I thought this would allow me the balance I needed (even if it did nothing for my self-esteem). When it resulted in bullying, mistrust, and resentment (oh, and crippling boredom), I gave up completely on the formal working world, and went it alone. I finally worked out that what I'd loved about being an academic was behaving a bit like a barrister: running my own portfolio of students, while contributing to a greater good through lecturing and research. So that's what I've based my consultancy on. But again, that's another story.

All the time – and we're talking years here – I was trying to balance the needs of the kids in terms of education, development, entertainment, love, while my husband was struggling to keep the ground under his feet (and helping out at home. Good man). 


It feels at the moment as if that hard past is in the past (fingers crossed): my husband has a great job now. For now. Who knows when the dark times might come again? I hope never. But that would be naive. The really tough times seem to be physically behind us – those years will never come again, and I am grateful for that – but of course it makes me sad, because the time I wish never to live again also covers the whole of our children's childhood. And that is a terrible truth to face.

From the moment we returned to the UK, in September 2006, from those two happy years in Australia, with our son aged 3 months and our girl aged 3, until roughly… now, our lives were blighted and strained, largely because of money, and British life. 

I found it so difficult to stay steady when I never knew where I was financially, and my husband was having to cope with change all the time, either in a job that wasn't ideally suited to him, or trying to start a company. We got through it because we just had to. You just have to, when you're an adult.

Right now, we are in the best shape we have ever been in – everyone is flourishing, I have the house to myself during the day, so no longer need to dream about an external office or how to fund extortionate childcare. I know what I'm doing and can manage the juggle because I'm not overloaded. I'm able to balance the exercise I absolutely have to have, with teaching, and crawling along on the writing. Hubby is happy because he's flying at work. The children are enjoying school and life. Please, please let it last. 

It's an amazing feeling – it's what I've always wanted. The only thing I want to change is to have written about five books, but I'm no longer prepared to jeopardise the family balance for that, until it's 'safe' to do so, i.e. the kids are 'independent'. I don't yet know what the kind of 'independence' I mean would actually look like, whether I can push harder for more for myself and my own personal fulfilment before they are done with school, or not. Time will tell. All I know is that this is my sweet spot, and I have to bring everything back to this feeling of balance and contentment every day, in order to function. 


Everyone's Motherload is different, coming at them for different reasons, their past, their ambitions, Lady Luck and the vicissitudes of the economy. You can't do away with the hard work of raising children – it just is hard work, however much money you've got.

Where Motherload is absolutely toxic, however, lies in the weight of negative, critical judgement and assumption brought to bear almost wholly on women for the way they mother, in amongst all the other duties they take on, whether at home or at work, which are taken utterly for granted. This is what is completely out of control, and needs to be outed and killed off.

Women feel so flayed in their vulnerability about their children, that it is a piece of cake for others to walk all over them, beating them up for perceived failures that women in fact have no control over. Mothers are made to carry all of society's ills, without support. 

Try to put your finger on where this pressure and negativity and abjection comes from, and you find it fleeing to the corners – it is an ideological force, born of capitalism's boom and bust nature, and the ill-formed way that patriarchy was both born of capitalism and is disintegrating as capitalism proceeds. Because, ultimately, it is to the advantage, not of society and families, but of Capital, that everyone should be working, all the time, and that the definition of 'work' should continue to expand and morph. 

It's the easiest thing in the world to disregard labour that is unpaid, and then punish people who are emerging from a hitherto disenfranchised group for not working hard enough. If you don't recognise half of what they do as work, then you can demand a whole lot more from them, and they won't fight back (they'll moan, but they won't fight back). And if you tell a group they are worthless for a few centuries, surprise surprise, you have a very compliant workforce when you do allow them into it. 

That's where we are in history – a state of total confusion about what women are for, what role they should play, how many roles they should play, in what kind of time frame (all at once, or one at a time). 

The narrative for women, across the classes, has not evolved, it has broken, and we are all paying the price. 

But no single woman, and no single policy change, is going to put this chronic toxicity right. We all know what ought to change: 

If you want women to bear and raise children, you need to give them better support to do it. 

If you want women to get an education, have a career AND bear and raise children, you have to give them even more support, and men have to give up some of their freedom, lower their expectations and lose their sense of entitlement, and start doing more within the family. 

You have to have social policies in place that support this. Like free wraparound care so that children can be looked after well during working hours.

You have to cut the culture of presenteeism, and reduce working hours so that men and women can return to their homes and be with their children at a reasonable time. 

You need less, not more, parental engagement in schools, and no in-term 'training days' for teachers, and you need better provision for school holiday care. 

You need to remind anxious parents that children actually thrive on boredom and don't need to be ferried about to extra activities or pushed through umpteen music grades, or given everything they demand. What they need are books, boxes, pens and paper, playgrounds, beaches, occasional sweeties, wellingtons and cuddles. Oh all right, a bit of maths. You get my drift.

Let's not even start on the healthcare. 

This kind of joined-up thinking is massively beyond any government, mainly because, of course, it SUITS half the population to have the other half running around like a blue-arsed fly, at the operations level, while at the strategic level, whoever is lucky enough to have got there can swan about, talking shop. Germaine Greer pointed out that the desks of senior executives are always clear, because they don't actually DO anything. They talk about doing, and they tell others what to do.

We no longer live in an era dominated by ideologies such as the Divine Right of Kings or the Great Chain of Being. 

We no longer condone labour systems predicated on slavery.

We have emancipated women (thanks very much: strange thought that women ever needed emancipating).

But now we have to learn to live with them, moving about in public society, with children or without children, with careers or without them, with jobs or without them, and stop treating them as undesirables who ought really to be locked in a kitchen, out of sight and out of their minds, whom we are just doing a favour by allowing out, and who are fair game for any amount of criticism whether it makes sense or not. 

It's a strange thing to use the pronoun 'we' under such conditions, but I mean it – I include myself and everyone else, men and women, gay and straight, black and white in what I'm saying here. There's inclusivity for you. We're all at it, we all judge and find fault, and look for ways to inflict our own unassuaged desires onto others, and we all make the assumption that this can best be done on the weaker-looking of the species, and we all still assume that this means women. When we don't think that it means children. We are all guilty of it. It doesn't matter how many degrees I have, I still think I'm somehow worthless. Well, that came from somewhere. It's been reinforced by something. And let's not blame my mother.

Getting that kind of assumption out of our heads is and will be harder than any demonstration for women's rights. 

We have all internalised, to our very cores, the idea that Woman is weaker and responsible for society's ills, and for putting them right. From Eve to Angela Merkel, we're all happier when we can blame a woman.

The big societal shifts that have resulted in legislation supposedly enforcing equal pay, equal rights and so forth have taken place. The greatest progress of all has been the Pill, giving women control, at last, over reproduction. These changes have only just taken place – a few decades isn't very long, compared with centuries and centuries of inequality. The legislation hasn't yet been entirely successful, but a great deal of progress has, of course, been made. Long may it last. 

What has not yet shifted are our base assumptions, our deep thinking, our unconscious negative judgements, our childish desire to blame others – and above all the great parent in the sky – for our ills, when they are squarely our fault and our responsibility. That blame culture has become all the more visible because of the internet, which has allowed the trolls to come out in full force. Used to taking the flak, women are only now starting to understand that they will never achieve equality, even if the law tells them they are equal, unless they work out which things they are really responsible for, and which are just being Motherloaded onto them, because no one can be bothered to take control, take care of themselves, or their surroundings, do the dirty work, clear up after themselves, or offer to help. Until women push back and refuse to do other people's dirty work, and men accept that dirty work is their responsibility too, genuine equality is impossible.

In the meantime, women have to fight for their pleasure, happiness and fulfilment. Fight the demons in their heads, and fight the unpleasant manipulations of their roles and identities that beset them every day in advanced capitalist societies.

P.S. I've kicked the anti-depressants, but I'm still dancing.


litlove said...

Ingrid, do read Who Cooked Adam Smith's Dinner? by Katrine Marcal. She has a fantastically cogent analysis of how capitalism has shafted mothers and turned them into invisible workhorses who must be perfectly loving and accepting because the slightest deviation throws them outside the cultural gaze. I thought of you while reading it!

LizB said...

And you have written two books. Brilliant books. :-)