helen hayward

life writing

foreword by alain de botton to ‘in praise of housekeeping’

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This foreword is written for a book that I have been writing for what seems like forever. It’s the story of my unfolding relationship to housekeeping – to looking after the things and people I care about most – over a span of 30 years.

‘We might be tempted to feel rather sorry for someone who confessed that their greatest pleasure in life was staying at home – or worse, that their deepest satisfactions sprang from what (usually with a sneer) we call ‘housekeeping’. What would need to have gone wrong for someone to prefer their own bedroom or kitchen to the theatres and clubs, parties and conference venues of the world? How narrow would someone’s horizons need to have grown for them to devote an hour to choosing a gift for a friend, or a brass lamp for the living room? Our era has a hard time maintaining sympathy for domesticity. Reality lies outside our doors. There are really only two categories of people who can be forgiven for being heavily invested in spending time at home: small children. And losers.

But after launching our ambitions on the high seas, after trying for a few decades to make a mark on our times, after exhausting ourselves sucking up to those in power and coping with gossip, slander and scandal, we might start to think less harshly of those who prefer to remain within their own walls and think a lot – and with pride – about sewing projects and recipes, seedlings and garlic crushers, laundry cupboards and cleaning products.

It might, of course, be preferable to manage to bend the world to one’s own will, to tidy up the minds of millions or to fashion a business in one’s image. But after a bit of time on the planet, some of us may be ready to look with new understanding and admiration at those who can draw satisfaction from making blackberry jam, taking strikings from lavender or painting the bedroom floor.

This is where Helen Hayward’s luminous book comes in. She encourages us to look with greater generosity, and newfound interest, at the domestic side of our lives – and to see in the management of a home one of the great triumphs and challenges of existence. We know – of course – that we have to pay the bills, clean up, manage the laundry, make the bed, cook some meals, keep the fridge stocked and take out the rubbish. These issues take up a lot of our attention and time anyway, but they are rarely at the core of what we think a good life is about. Yet the notion that practical matters have no legitimate place in our days and nights makes our lives far harder than they need to be. We get irritated by what seem like maddeningly minor details. Should we be taking clothes to the dry cleaner? Should we have a roster for taking out the bins? What to do about storage jars? But not only are we annoyed. We’re annoyed that we end up annoyed about things that are so utterly petty.

Frustration doesn’t just stem from things being difficult, it stems from them being unexpected and difficult. Nobody complains that it’s quite hard to climb Mount Everest. But our culture has for decades encouraged the idea that domestic matters are beneath the dignity of the sophisticated individual: we should be out working or having fun. We under-budget for domestic issues and feel that they shouldn’t be things we have to take up again and again. When we understand that an issue is important and complex, we take it for granted there will friction that will take time to clear up, that there will need to be a lot of explanation, negotiation and debate. The small, bounded, repetitive tasks of domestic life in fact play a great part in the essential task of living well. The great themes come into focus in them. With Helen Hayward’s help, we can accept the fundamental dignity of the ironing board and the store cupboard, the kitchen and the bathroom.

Maybe housekeeping is a consolation; so be it. We might once have wanted to tame and educate the entire world, to have had millions of people agree with us and to gain the adulation of strangers. But such plans are inherently unstable and open to being destroyed by envy and vanity. Hayward’s book shows us how a devotion to home can shore up our moods if our wider surroundings grow hostile. We can reactivate our dormant appreciation of our surroundings and find meaning in nothing greater or smaller than sewing on a few buttons in the late evening or choosing a new fabric for a chair. Hayward is not naive, she understands how war, politics and business work, but it is precisely because she does so that she is keen to throw her spotlight elsewhere. Her writing is – in the deep sense – political, in that it articulates a vision of how we might ideally live, and covertly criticises military generals and power-hungry politicians, business leaders and actors. It hints that waving flags at rallies and sounding important at meetings is well and good, but that the true battles and successes lie elsewhere, in the challenges of daily life, of so-called ordinary existence.

With Hayward as our guide, tonight, we might – once more – choose to stay in, do some reading, patch a hole in a sweater, try a new arrangement for the living room and be intensely grateful that we have overcome the wish to live too much in the minds of strangers.’

bicheno

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I have been on holiday by myself a few times now and have always considered it a privilege. I’ve enjoyed getting away from the washing machine and family dinners and even the garden. I love my work and can do it anywhere. It gives me a kick to open up my computer somewhere completely else and to see the world anew.

A month ago, I decided that I needed, even deserved, a break from being at home. But when it came to packing for three days away, last Tuesday night, I felt no desire to leave. What was the point of going on holiday all by myself? Who exactly, apart from my overly-entitled Labrador, was I taking a break from?

Originally, when I booked two nights on the coast, I assumed that my daughter would be with me. As did she. But that was three weeks ago and, in your early twenties, three weeks may as well be three months. So I wasn’t altogether surprised when Emma sent me a text, last weekend, saying that she couldn’t get time off work. ‘Is it really this week?’ she asked in a whiny voice, in a follow-up call. ‘Don’t worry’, I said quickly. ‘Really. I have lots of things to do and besides, Tess wants me to visit her up there. And I like spending time on my own’.

Once I’d done all the things that needed doing before I left home, and was heading north in my car, I relaxed. I knew in my heart that this trip was the first of many firsts. First holiday without James to go home to. First Christmas without a normal family – whatever that is. First birthday on my own. And so on. So it didn’t really matter where I went on my first trip away. Just that I took it.

The 1960s beach shack that I’d booked successfully disguised, behind sheets of plaster board, a beautiful – shabby chic – renovation. The kitchen cupboards were full of provisions that, like Goldilocks, I could eat. There were heaters to take the edge of the cold. There was a nice sense of enclosure, in the garden outside and in the kitchen inside, despite the shack being around the corner from the main street.

I was doing yoga the next morning, with music playing, when Emma banged at the front door. The moment I saw her, I mentally changed my plans so that we could have the kind of day that the two of us had spent so often in the past. First, she joined me doing yoga without trying to knock me over, her old trick, until the end of the practice. After breakfast, I refused to wear the wetsuit that she’d brought up for me to wear in the surf with her. Instead, I walked along a wild and windy beach. Then I sat on a bench, overlooking the sea, reading Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism while Emma surfed for way longer than she said she would. Just as she always had. Taking inspiration from the book I was reading, I uninstalled Instagram on my phone there and then. Because I knew that, within a month of installing it, Instagram had become my go-to distraction. I could still use Instagram on my home computer, just not when I was in brilliant sunshine with bright blue water below, pretending to watch my daughter surf.

The main reason why I uninstalled Instagram on my phone, sitting on a bench overlooking the sea, went deeper. I knew that my days away were precious and I didn’t want to distract myself from my need for them. I didn’t want to act as if everything was fine, and that I would be returning to life as I’d known it the following day. Because my life in Hobart wasn’t there anymore. It had taken flight and something else, strange because new, had taken its place.

Bicheno is a coastal town that was once a whaling station and that only became a popular holiday destination after WW2 when petrol rationing let up. The buildings in the main street appear small and, without pitched roofs, flat. Fifty years ago, the RSL built tennis courts and a bowling green but somehow forgot to plant street trees. Luckily, a beautiful coastal walk, the length of the town, was built, alternating between wooded gravel paths and white arrows painted on giant granite boulders next to the sea.

All my life I have loved coastal walks. My curiosity to see what is around the next bend, the next headland, takes over whenever I’m on one. The fact that this coastal path led to the town’s blowhole, quickly became, as I wound my way over roots and through boggy mud, by the by. That first evening, I walked out to the blowhole because it seemed like the right thing to do and, having done it before, I knew that I wouldn’t get lost walking home in the dark. After arriving at the blowhole, I obediently got out my camera and waited for big waves to shoot up through the blowhole. Only, just like in real life, the waves only shot high through the blowhole when I put my camera away.

Taking this as a sign, I walked on, past the blowhole and its handful of tourists, and found a huge flat rock, overlooking waves and rocks below, with mountains and coast receding into the distance. For a few minutes, I felt I could see my whole life in the waves that broke high on the rocks below. Suddenly, I felt so alone, on that rock and in my life, that I cried. I felt surprised, as a minute I hadn’t felt upset. But I was used to this pattern. Once every few days, an intense feeling upset comes from nowhere, washes through me, and then is gone. Once it was gone, I picked myself up, swatted at the mosquitoes flying by and felt lighter. I thought better of walking back in the dark, and instead lost myself in newly-built, brightly lit streets that didn’t join on to the main road where I thought they should, which meant doubling back to the blowhole and starting over again.

After lunch the next day, Emma and I picked our way along the same path, well past the blowhole. This time my mind was chattering, even while talking to Emma. Why, I asked myself, did Emma never wear a hat or sunglasses? Was it because I’d forced too many hats on her as a child? Didn’t she know how easily she burned, with her fair skin and blue eyes? Also, more distractingly, how affected was she, really, by James’ separation from me? However, once we got down to the cove and found our own giant flat rock to sit on, all my chatter fell away. Thanks to that big flat rock, we had the kind of conversation that is hard to have at the kitchen table, or even in a car, that was somehow made possible by the sound of the waves and the sense of an afternoon, and the weeks ahead, stretching into the distance.

Emma – who had a covid shot booked early the next morning – left that night, following an early dinner. As she got into her petrol-guzzling second-hand car, I went to see Tess who, with her husband and father, had built a house outside the town where she and her husband now live and work. Later, back at the shack, I fell into watching a Tom Cruise film on television that became so violent that I had to lunge for the remote for fear of not sleeping. (I don’t have a television at home, I am always drawn, like a toddler to a bag of sweets, to switching on the television when I’m on holiday, just to check that another moon landing hasn’t happened since I last turned one on. But no, there had been no moon landing. The newsreaders seemed a titch older. And the policemen, always in pairs, looked chunkier than in the past. And even though the Tom Cruise film I’d been engrossed in was very clever, too clever for me to follow after a long day, I felt that the world it depicted was a lot less beautiful than the beachside town I was staying in.

As I packed up the next morning, after sleeping in, I realised that I hadn’t done any of the things I’d had in mind to do while away. Not a single drawing. No writing. No phone-calls. No financial planning (hah!). Still, I knew I hadn’t wasted my time. I’d read in bed. I’d done the coastal walk at dusk and early morning. I’d bought Emma’s Christmas present at a surf shop. I’d watched the food channel on television, which I won’t forget in a hurry. And I’d slept in. Together, these things made me feel real, as real as I felt on the coastal walk as I followed white arrows painted on granite rocks that had been washed by rain and sea for thousands of years before I walked over them.

Rushing to leave the shack, before check-out time, I wrote a note in the comments book which was left open for guests to write in. In that moment, I felt a swell of gratitude to the family who had opened their shack to people like myself; to a family who had trusted the world enough to welcome people they’d never meet into spaces they’d made so warm and good to spend time in. A place that was Hygge in the best sense, and that was miles away from clinical hotel rooms of the past.

Even when I got home, to find the kitchen in a mess that took half an hour to clean up, I didn’t mind. Even when my son mentioned, in passing over a late dinner, that he planned to look at a share house with a friend on Monday, I didn’t fuss. Well, that’s not quite true. I did freak out for a moment at the prospect of living on my own, and so soon, in our family home. However, I also knew, in a grown-up part of myself, that it was time for Alex to move on and to fend for himself again. I had enough presence of mind, after three days away, that for Alex to move into a nearby share house was the most that I could hope for.

Late last night, when I should have been in bed, I checked the availability of the shack in Bicheno over the coming months. There were just a couple of nights available in November and two more in December, then nothing until March. I hate planning. It stresses me out paying for accommodation in advance. But I also recognised, as I stood at my computer, that now that things have changed permanently in my life, that I needed to look after myself in a new way.

Nowadays, when I look at my diary – the paper one I carry around with me and the one I keep in my head – I prefer to see, not empty spaces, but days blocked out around which all the other days can fall into place. With a few days in Bicheno blocked out, in the run-up to the end of the year, I can look forward to the months ahead, and can just about but not quite imagine, the years after that. Someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to. Tick.

empty bookcases

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I was turning out the hall light, before going up to bed, when my eye was taken by the two bookcases by the front door. They were empty. Only that morning they’d been full of books, James’ books. Some of them James had bought purely for the beauty of their spines. Others were treasures he’d picked up in a city that has largely moved on from high culture. A number of pots and vases had also lived on the shelves. These too had sprouted wings and flown.

I looked squarely at the bookcases, feeling the same shiver that I’d felt a few days earlier, on passing the wooden hut in the bottom of the garden which James has worked in for up to sixteen hours a day, in every weather, for the past eleven years. Passing by with the wheelbarrow, I noticed that James’ desk was still there, pushed to one side. But the small bookcases that housed a collection of black-spined Penguin classics, some of which were mine, were gone. For that split second, the wooden hut looked to my eye like an empty tomb.

The first time I felt that shiver, that fear of abandonment, I was a teenager, and my father was being taken in an ambulance for heart treatment as I rode my bike through the back gate after school. When I flew to London on a one-way ticket, in my early 20s, again I felt that fear of having nothing and no-one to fall back on. Except that, by this point, living a long way from home felt exhilarating and scary rather than fearful. For decades after that, nothing. Perhaps marrying and starting a family quietened my fears. Taking care of family became my way of taking care of myself. But it was also my way – though I didn’t declare it even to myself – of making sure that I wouldn’t be abandoned.

Eight years ago, the death of my elder sister and mother only three months apart, changed this careful balance, this equation with life. The effect of these deaths blew my fear of being abandoned out of the water. What was the point of fearing abandonment when death was a bigger threat? The loss of my sister and mother, just as I was making sense of mid-life, affected me deeply. After it, I committed myself to life first, and to the people I loved second. I never announced this. But in my heart, I let myself feel it. I still cooked my family dinner and brought in the laundry most nights, but I no longer felt I was on this earth to do so.

Not long after these deaths in my family, James started traveling for work to Italy each year. Even after James made it clear that he was fine without me in Italy, I reassured myself that he still belonged at home with me and our family in Hobart. Blowing off steam in Italy, I told myself, made it more likely that our marriage would last. All I had to do was to get out of bed each morning, walk downstairs, look around the rooms that James had furnished with his furniture, artwork and books, and any insecurities dissolved. 

However, glancing up at those empty bookcases, when I wasn’t looking and was ready for bed, threw me off balance. For a few seconds I felt the shock of reality not being the way that I thought it was. Then it came to me that James must have been round earlier in the day to collect his books. And I had further thought. How was I going to fill two more bookcases, when already there were gaps that I couldn’t fill on the shelves in my study? I simply didn’t have enough knowledge, enough books, to fill more bookcases, especially such public ones. Over the last year, I’d listened to 54 audio books and had borrowed countless books and magazines from the library. But I couldn’t display these, end to end, on any shelf. From tomorrow onwards, everyone who walked through the front door would have their eye caught by this clear sign of James’ absence.

It wasn’t just embarrassment that I felt. I liked James’ old books. I admired James’ love of learning and didn’t feel intimidated by these early editions in the way that our kids, who have foregone higher learning in favour of practical learning, sometimes do. I knew that James’ desire to steep himself in past writers, especially philosophers, was genuine. I liked knowing that the person I was married to was keeping these writers alive by reading and writing about them. And I knew, in that moment, that I would miss finding an edition of Plutarch, or John Ruskin, by the bath.

I flicked off the hall light and went upstairs, where I lay on top of my bed, my thoughts flitting from life itself, to what I might wear the next day which promised to be wet. Two weeks ago, when James left the house for good, I forced myself to sleep in our old bedroom on a single bed – which was half of our old king-sized bed. I felt sure that the more nights I slept in that bedroom, overlooking the street, the easier it would become. The more often I woke up in that room, sun peeping under blinds, the more quickly I would feel that I belonged there.

As I lay fully clothed on half of my marital bed, I remembered some of the good things that had happened in that room. Yes, there’d been nights when, furious at James’ noisy sleeping, I’d taken myself off to the sofa bed next door. But there had been ten times more nights when we slept side by side and woke up content to be in that bedroom, that shared life. As I stared at the closed curtain, I realised that I didn’t want to forget the good times in my marriage in order to get my head around the fact of our separation. I accepted that James wanted to start the next part of his life without me in it, on his own terms. It was a test of my grown-upness, but I could accept it. But nor did I want to act as if our thirty-four years together hadn’t happened, or that they were, with hindsight, some kind of well-intended mistake.

Lying on the bed when I should have been fast asleep inside it, I was struggling to accept the loss of my marriage. It stretched my brain just thinking about it. But no matter my resistance I knew that it was happening, almost despite myself. Each night, it was happening in my dreams. Every day, it was occurring in the deepest part of myself. And because I wasn’t directing this loss myself, I knew that I had no idea how much longer it would take to complete. Still, that wasn’t my biggest worry. My biggest worry was that once I did let go of my marriage to James, what would happen to all the good experiences that were bound up with it? Would their fate be to turn into empty bookcases?

Only now, writing this at the kitchen table the next morning, do I realise the meaning behind those empty bookcases by the front door. Even though my knee-jerk reaction to seeing them empty was panic, panicked isn’t what I feel about James moving out of this house. Mostly, I understand why James needed to move on and away from me. I know that it wasn’t an easy decision for him to make, that it was probably one of his hardest decisions. Admittedly, now and then I feel consumed by curiosity for what he is up to one whole suburb away. However, I don’t feel that I’ve been left out on a rock like a tribal elder whose time has come. Perhaps when my son leaves home, a sense of abandonment will hit me. But I wonder. Could it be that this fear, which sprang up when I felt afraid of something that I didn’t have words for as a girl, is no longer with me?

Two weeks in to my new life without James, what I’ve discovered is that after twenty-five years of being ‘it’ for my family, I quite like the experience of being alone. As long as time on my own is bookended with other things, I enjoy solitude. Perhaps, after all these years – after all this doing and caring for others – I even deserve a break from being ‘it’. I would never have chosen to have empty bookcases at this point of my life. Also, maddeningly, society still doesn’t value mothering enough to credit it for what it is, a noble sacrifice. Still, despite all this, perhaps this, now, is my long service leave.

When I look into my heart, and deeper still, I realise that I fear a loss of intimacy with the people that I care about most far more than I fear living alone with a yellow Labrador. While this still leaves me with the problem of how to fill the bookshelves by the front door, this, I know, is a different sort of problem. And maybe, just maybe, whoever walks through that door, their mind on other things, won’t even notice.

This, my commitment to life, was reinforced when James started traveling to Italy for months at a time. Each time he returned, I welcomed him back, but I gave slightly less of myself to him.

agreement

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At 11.30pm last Sunday, I was sitting on the floor of my study, trying not to get impatient with my new eco-printer which refused to print the separation agreement that James and I had put together – in concert with a financially-minded relative of mine – to sign with a witness the next morning. I am not good with technology and it is not good with me. However, after clearing two print jams and okaying a print head clean, I slipped three copies of the agreement into a green folder, coaxed my sleeping dog off the sofa and headed to bed.

Monday morning started early, with my first drawing lesson before breakfast. I knocked on Jan’s door, my pencils and pads in a bag over my shoulder, feeling shy and determined. I had put off this step, for sensible reasons, for years. But the time for sensible excuses was over. It was time to focus on what I cared about now, not least because no-one else was going to do this for me.

The moment I stepped into Jan’s back room, I felt at ease. My doubts dissolved. I knew why I was there. First, Jan and I talked through some of my old drawings, a few of which were drawn before I had kids. Then I got out my pencils and asked Jan for something – anything – to draw. ‘What about an onion?’ she asked. ‘Perfect’, I said, thinking to myself that I often drew vegetables at home, but that today it would feel different. ‘Yellow or purple?’ Jan asked. ‘Yellow’, I replied. I accepted the onion, turned it in my hand, laid it on the wooden table, lowered my gaze and started drawing. 

After twenty minutes or so, Jan fetched her watercolour pencils, saying that if I didn’t want to draw the same drawing every time – my reason for seeking her out – I could use her pencils and play around with a brush later. The colours of the pencils were beautiful and I was quickly absorbed by them, my lesson over before I’d got out a brush to use with them. I thanked Jan, paid her the agreed amount and set up to see her in a fortnight.

Back in the car, I found a text from James saying that the psychologist we’d seen as a couple could slip us in, between patients, in half an hour’s time. ‘Can you make it?’ he asked. ‘Yes!’, I texted back, and headed for the bridge.

The office in which Geoff Simmons sees clients for half his working week, on the other side of the bridge from where I live, couldn’t be more different to the poky doctor’s office in which James and I had seen him for the three sessions leading up to our breakup. This consulting room, inside a newly built clinic, looked more like the office of a lawyer or school principal than a psychologist, with an imposing wooden desk and a bank of cabinets lining one wall.

Geoff shut the door and we exchanged pleasantries. Then I took one of the two chairs in front of the desk and got out the green folder. Unsure what to do next, the lawyer’s daughter in me decided to read the separation agreement aloud so that the three of us at least knew what we were signing. Without exchanging words, we signed and dated the papers, passing the copies between us. Perhaps the signing took a minute. Twenty-five years of marriage was over, poof, with three signatures.

This wasn’t a therapy session, so there was little more to do than to put the agreement back in my green folder and to thank Geoff for his work with James and me. As Geoff opened the door for us, he remarked that we seemed to have got through the settlement phase better than some couples. ‘That’s because’, I said quickly, ‘it’s the easy bit’. Geoff smiled briefly before ushering James and me through two badly designed dogleg corridors. With that, we were done. There was no need for further appointments, now that our separation agreement was signed.

‘I had a nice dream about you last night’, said James, as we passed through the clinic’s automatic doors. ‘Really?’ I said. ‘That’s good’, I said. ‘I think’, I said, ‘changing the subject, ‘that what I feel most right now is relief. I tried so hard, for so long, in our marriage, that it’s a relief to stop trying’. ‘Yes’, James said.

It was his turn to change the subject. ‘I like what you’re doing with the house’, he said. ‘It seems lighter and more yours’. ‘I guess so’, I said. ‘I’m still playing round with what’s there. I’m finding it weird to sleep in the front bedroom again. Half a double bed, that king single, seems so narrow – I feel like I’m going to fall off one side’. James laughed.

‘And what about you?’ I asked, turning to James as we neared the carpark. ‘How are you going?’ ‘Actually’, he said, ‘I’m liking the place that I’m in more than I thought’. ‘That’s great’, I said. ‘What about Italy?’ I asked. ‘Do you have a date for that?’ ‘No’, he said, ‘it’s incredibly tough with all the restrictions. And I hate the idea of double quarantining. I think it might drive me mad. Also, I’m fine with where I am right now’.

‘Wow’, I said, ‘I’m really pleased for you. Can I give you a hug?’ ‘Course’, he said. And we hugged before parting. ‘I hope that you can come around to my place soon’, James said, getting his phone out as I felt for my car keys. ‘I’d be happy to give you a key to it’. ‘No’, I said, after a moment’s thought. ‘I don’t want a key, but thank you’.

     *      *     *

The lawyer who drew up my will ten years ago, had since retired from the practice, the receptionist at the lawyer’s office informed me when I made enquiries at the desk. ‘Oh’, I said, ‘I’ve just signed a separation agreement with my husband, and I was hoping that a signed copy could be kept with my will. ‘Yes, I can arrange that’, said the receptionist, taking the paper from me and giving me a kindly look. ‘Also’, I added, ‘I’d like to know how much it might cost to make it legally binding.’ The receptionist took off her ear-piece to look at me. ‘I’m really not sure’, she said. ‘It depends on a number of factors. But, just a moment, and I’ll ask someone’.

The receptionist returned with an information pack, which was just what I hadn’t come for. ‘Look’, I said, aware that my emotions were showing, ‘I do understand that you can’t be definite about cost. But even a ball-park figure would be helpful at this point.’ ‘Yes of course’ the receptionist said, and left her post once again.

I looked round the hushed reception before taking a seat on a low heavy table, laden with expensive magazines, one of which I flicked through. I waited for five long minutes until a junior associate came out, all smiles, to speak to me, the middle-aged woman in reception who was asking curly questions.

Holding my separation agreement in her hand, Jackie began by telling me, in a well-versed legal manner, that the courts to which my agreement would be sent to for verification would consider it flimsy at best. ‘Yes’, I replied, feeling myself bristle, ‘I do realise that it’s an informal agreement’. Then Jackie outlined my two options. Option one, which was cheaper but allowed for no control over the outcome, would be to send my signed agreement to be ratified by the courts which, she pointed out, may well query its terms. ‘Oh’, I said, ‘I had no idea that the courts would be involved’. Jackie smiled politely and continued. Option two, more expensive but more flexible, would be for one of the firm’s lawyers to draw up a contract to be signed by James and me. ‘Yes’, I said, ‘that sounds better. What would that cost?’ Jackie’s brow furrowed as she swayed from ankle boot to ankle boot. I knew that I was pushing her, a woman young enough to be my daughter. However, in that moment my need to know felt urgent. ‘Well’, Jackie said, ‘I’d say $5000’. ‘Right’, I said, taking the sum in.

Jackie smiled with sympathy, and perhaps relief, as I stood up to leave. ‘Thank you so much for being straight with me’, I said. ‘It helps a lot’. Smiling again, Jackie said that it had been her pleasure. But before I pushed open the heavy office doors, I asked the receptionist for a pen so that I could write down a couple of websites that I’d found in the magazine I’d read while waiting. Happy to oblige, she handed me a maroon felt-tip pen with the name of the legal firm printed along the side. Not, I thought, a cheap freebie. I scribbled down the two websites on the front of the information pack I’d been given and handed back the pen. ‘No’, the receptionist said, waving her hand, ‘you’re welcome to keep it’. ‘Thank you for your help’, I said, and left.

Once, a million-seeming years ago, as a student at university, I was enrolled in Law-Arts. But I never took any Law subjects. Perhaps if I had, I would now be working in a plush air-conditioned office like the one I’d just left, giving out information packs to middle-aged women whose lives had suddenly veered off the main path.

Still, I knew that the sympathy of the two women in the law office had been real. I knew that the receptionist had bent the rules when she’d asked a junior associate to explain to me my options in unbilled minutes. I was grateful for this. Yet I was also struck by how unpsychological the legal approach to separation, at least on the surface, was. How could a change as big as the one I was now facing be addressed by protocol, precedents and unreadable contract prose? I didn’t want my hand held by the legal system. But I did want, I did need, emotional intelligence from it.

As I headed to my car, I felt relieved that, if nothing else, a copy of the separation agreement was now with my will in case I was hit by a bus crossing a busy road. Standing waiting for the lights to change, at the pedestrian crossing, I made a spontaneous decision. If James and I came to blows about the agreement we’d just signed, in years to come, I’d sooner see the psychologist who’d witnessed us sign the agreement that morning, and nut it out with him in the room, than consult a lawyer half my age, who I’d barely met, at his or her rate of $350 an hour.

Back in my car, I greeted my dog who was stretched out on the back seat. As I did up my seat belt, I felt a moment of pride that James and I had crossed the choppy waters of separation without too much crashing about and hurting of feelings. I felt bruised, yes. But I didn’t feel broken. I had no idea how I would rebuild myself in the months and years ahead. And I knew that it would take a while to get used to not using the ‘we’ pronoun. There was also the hard-to-put-into-words feeling of there being no-one behind me to catch me when I fall. But even with this existential blank, I sensed, as I nudged my car into traffic, that ‘harder but better’ – the mantra that ran through my head whenever I felt wobbly about the future – might still be the best way through.

That night, my third attempt to sleep in my old bedroom, I picked up a book by a Buddhist writer that sits by my bed. It’s a book that I can open anywhere and it speaks to me. Last Monday night, I opened the book at a chapter called ‘Acceptance is Change’. I’d forgotten to bring my reading glasses upstairs, so reading more than a few paragraphs of small print was a struggle. Still, as I turned out the light, it seemed to me that ‘acceptance is change’ was all that I needed to take in after a very long day.

let go

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It would be easier for me if my husband left the house for good in one fell swoop. A removal van would arrive when I was out, into which his valuables would be piled and then off he and they would go. So that when I arrived home, my eye would take in the holes in the rooms where his things had been, but I wouldn’t have to witness their disappearance.

At dinner last night, I told James that he could take whatever he liked to his new place. ‘Most of the furniture is yours anyway, so please don’t worry about the gaps it will leave’. ‘What about the bed?’ James asked casually. (I have slept on a sofa bed in the spare room throughout covid.) ‘Just take it’, I said, as I spooned more rice on to my plate from the cast iron pot that I’ve had since I met James. But as I put the olive-green lid back on the oval pot, I changed my mind. ‘Except’, I said to James, ‘if you take that bed, there will be no bed in that room. And beds’, I added, ‘are expensive. At least that one is’. ‘Is it?’ said James, surprised. ‘Yeh’, I said. ‘Don’t you remember? That bed was my last attempt to get a bed in which we could both sleep undisturbed’. ‘Oh’, said James, ‘I’d completely forgotten. Really, don’t worry about it. I can sleep on a camp bed until I work something out. I’ll be fine with that’.

After we finished eating, James went off to set up his computer in the living room for us to watch an episode of the Danish drama that we’re both hooked on, even though it’s our second viewing. As I stacked the plates in the dishwasher, I called out from the kitchen, something which I knew James, who is hard of hearing, hates. ‘You know’, I called, ‘that bed is actually two king singles pushed together. You’re welcome to take one. It’s pretty wide. That way I’ll still have a bed if friends come to stay.’ ‘Done’, said James, who was staring at his computer screen as I joined him on the sofa to watch Borgen.

Instead of connecting to the Internet, James leaned back into the sofa. ‘You know’, he said, ‘it’s going to take a bit of time to work out what I need at this new place. Dan said he’d come over with his van at some point this weekend. Apart from that, I thought I’d use my car and make multiple trips over the next few days. I hope that’s okay with you’. ‘Oh’, I said, ‘that might be hard for me. It will feel like you’re leaving over and over.’ There was a pause. ‘Oh well’, I added, ‘I guess it just will be hard for a bit. Besides, it’s weird for everyone’. And with that James connected his computer to the internet and we were taken away, blissfully, for the next hour, into the complexities of other lives, other relationships, another world.

So drawn am I into the set of Borgen, about the first female Danish Prime Minister, that I forget that the man sitting next to me – with whom I’ve spent 34 years on and off, taking in his recent travels – is quietly planning which lamps, cutlery, tables, pictures and chairs will fit into his car so that when he sleeps at his new place he won’t feel like he’s camping when he wakes up (James isn’t a camper).

Then it dawns on me. It’s not so much a matter of what James plans to take with him that will impact on how I live in the house without him in it, as what he leaves behind. But in that moment, I decide not to take a stand. It’s not my way and, besides, I don’t want to make our separation any harder than it already is by arguing about things that won’t matter in a year’s time. Letting go of James is hard enough. Waving him off to a new life just a suburb away is all that I have courage for. Argy-bargy about who gets what is the last thing I feel like discussing on what I realise with a jolt is our last night in the same house.

Lately, I have come to accept that James wants to end things with me. It has taken two months, but I now do accept it. I understand that he wants to enter a more independent and less compromised phase of his life, and that his decision not to spend the rest of it with me was his to make. I don’t think that he’s a selfish a-hole for this. (Although, now and then the thought has crossed my mind.) I also know that James doesn’t want me to feel rejected and that there is a good chance we can stay friends – or, his suggestion, cousins.

Still, this brave new world is a strange for me. I have no model, in my immediate family, for what the next phase of my life will look or be like. All the same, I know that in order to find out, in order to be at all curious about what comes next, I need to let go first.

This morning, as on countless other mornings, James came into the bathroom while I was in a yoga pose (the bathroom is the only warm room upstairs). ‘So sorry’, he said, as always. ‘Don’t worry’, I said, as always. Then it came to me. ‘You know’, I said, ‘your moving out of this house is a pretty radical way for us to get our own bathrooms’. ‘Yes’, he said with a laugh, brushing his teeth. ‘The solution’, he said, ‘that isn’t matched by the scale of the problem’. And he left the bathroom, closing the door softly behind him.

ever and ever

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Dear Reader,
I published this post, about the end of my marriage, last weekend. A few days later, a wise friend advised me to take it down. Since then, I have had a think. For a start, I am not wise, nor will ever be. When, ten years ago, I started this blog, it was with the express intention of writing in an intimate way about my experience of life. The end of my marriage is one of these experiences, and I feel far less awkward posting this story than I do fronting up to friends who I haven’t seen in a while and telling them what has happened.
Best wishes,
Helen

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I was brought up to believe that when the love between a couple gets tangled, that they should work hard to untangle it. I didn’t think that you could give up on long love, that throwing in the towel on a vintage marriage was even an option. In my emotional world, my husband and I would love each other, in our own fashion, for ever and ever. Until six weeks ago, I just assumed that James and I would grow old together.

I am not going to tell the story of how my marriage ended, mainly because it’s raw in a way that I don’t trust myself to tell it without trying to make myself come out on top. What I will say is that the end came about in a conversation in a café, and that there was no shouting. I will also say that it’s tough to be the one who is left, and that, despite seven weeks having passed since James told me of his plan to live mainly in Europe, leaving me with our grown-up kids in Tasmania, I feel unprepared, a little naked and very vulnerable. (I told you that I would try to make myself come out on top!)

Perhaps I should shout my dismay from the rooftops, as in a Greek drama. However, I’m not theatrical and besides, anger is only one of the feelings currently rushing through me. Deep down, I also feel a kind of respect – or is it wonder? – that James could pivot so radically after our spending three decades together.

Originally, I thought that James was having a mid-life crisis. However, knowing how much he hates terms like these, I thought better of mentioning it. Instead I hoped that James would come around to wanting to spend the rest of his life with me of his own accord. I never thought that he’d break things off with me in order to pursue a different sort of life, another way of being him, in a return to his cultural roots.  

When I tell friends about what has occurred in my marriage, I’m not ready for their responses. Often this response comes from a part of themselves that previously they had no reason to share with me. It comes from a hurt part of themselves that has never completely healed over, a part that reflects their experience, as children, of the love (or more painfully a lack of love) between their parents. It comes from a part of themselves that all of us have, somewhere inside, and that normally we keep covered over with sticks and branches. It comes from a broken part of ourselves that we keep protected, out of which the light shines through.

I have spent much of my adult life putting family and home first. My work has always been important, but in a complementary not a competitive way. This may explain why the prospect of being left alone in our house – once my son leaves as his sister has already done – with just a yellow Labrador and myself to cook for, scares me. How, I wonder, do I prepare for this strange future? Will I eat scrambled eggs and sardines on toast for the next however long? Will I cave in and get a flat screen? Play card games against myself? Join a choir? Will I rattle round our big old house before, keen for the income, renting part of it? Or will I be strong enough to shelve all plans until, as close friends urge, the next door opens?

The thing that I struggle with most, as the rug slips from under my feet, is the thought that the end of my marriage takes away from the value of everything that led up to it. I hate the idea that my kids might feel less loved, as they look back on their childhood, as a result of James and me splitting up now. The thought that all that work, all that love, could be undermined by a five-minute ending of a marriage, drives me slightly nuts.

These days, we expect so much from love. Now that Covid has blocked our escape routes, our relationships are required to do an awful lot. Such that when the love within a couple fails, as it has between James and me, the ripple-on effect can’t help but unsettle friends and family around about. Especially when, to make the situation extra confusing, James and I still get on. We still, when we get the chance, watch reruns of our favourite Danish drama and play games after dinner. And while I don’t love James as I once did, I still care deeply about him. As I think he does me.

There is one thing, in all of this, that I struggle to accept. All the work that, over the last ten years, I’ve put into trying to persuade the world of the value of housekeeping, feels like it’s been blown out of the water by this twist in my fate. Even though I stand by everything I’ve ever written about domesticity, when I zoom out from my life it seems that my decision to put family and home first has led to this very special punishment of being left by my husband at the point of my kids leaving home. Ughh. Instead of reinventing our marriage, as our kids spread their wings, James has put up his hand to leave home too.

Will, I wonder, the end of my marriage become the subject of gossip? Will it be summed up in a careless, told you so, way? From the outside – the only place from which others can see it – I’m conscious that I’ve had a fairly traditional marriage. And now that it’s ending, I imagine, in my mind’s eye, people rubbing their hands and pointing out its cracks. (I’m doing it now, writing this sentence.)

Thankfully, there is another, gentler way of looking at my marriage. From where I stand, typing at the kitchen bench as chicken stock bubbles on the hob, I can see there is a way in which, over the years, my marriage has served me well. I’d never have had the emotional and financial security to care for what I have, and in particular to write as I do, without my marriage to support me. I never would have had the confidence to put my family, home and writing first, to remain loyal to a psychologically conservative part of myself, without my wonky marriage to fall back on. This choice, which to be honest has felt less like a choice and more like a surrendering to something bigger than myself, isn’t something that it now makes sense to regret. It has made me who I am and, even after I do move on from my marriage, I’ll always be the woman that family life has turned me into. I’m still nuts about my kids and would do anything for them. I still care about all the wrong things, the domestic things, like home-made chicken stock and line-dried laundry. And despite everything, I still like and want the best for James.

James tells me that he doesn’t want to end everything between us. He wants to keep a relationship, just a different kind of relationship. He says that, for a while now, he has felt more like my second cousin than my husband. When he first said this, I laughed in his face. I felt insulted. What an absurd thing to say, I thought. But later, walking the dog, I realised the truth in James’ words. After all our years together, he too felt more like a relative than a romantic partner. The reason I’d laughed in my husband’s face was out of recognition.

The difference between James and me, when it comes to the shift that may occur within longstanding couples, from loving in a passionate way to lovingly putting up with each other, is that I’ve been less bothered by it than he has. For me, the change in our relationship is part of life’s rich tapestry. I suppose I could have suggested regular date nights. I could have run a ring around our wedding anniversary in our diary. But I didn’t. Instead, I decided to set the bar quite low. I gave James lots of freedom in the hope that he’d come back to me in his own good time. Clearly, I was mistaken in this. If marriage were a board game, I just lost.

During the twenty-plus years that I held everything together at home, James appreciated what I did. Still, he never put pressure on me to make the choice that I had. From his point of view, our family could equally have taken a two-career, outsourcing path. He would never have given up traveling for work – most years, he travelled for months at a time. Even so, he would have supported me. The choice that I made to make family, home and writing a tied first came from me. I was the one who decided that we’d all be better off if I put our wellbeing as a family first. Ultimately this choice, which as I say didn’t feel like a choice, stemmed from my refusal to spend my mothering years feeling stressed and not enough. Still, it was a hard decision to make, especially as I had to make it over and over. While I knew that it came from my heart, I also knew that it went against the current of how modern family life is meant to go. Besides, my head and my heart never agreed on my so-called choice, which meant living with a simmering sense of conflict – yoga helped a lot – for as many years as I have mothered.

So, James never did step in when I threw up my hands, usually in the run-up before dinner, and asked no-one in particular, ‘Am I wasting my life?’ He never was my traditional husband, my personal Aslan. When I lost my temper, rushing round packing for a holiday, he didn’t pat my hand and say, ‘You’re doing a great job and I’m sure everything will be fine’.

Looking back, as I type at the kitchen bench, I can see that putting family, home and writing first forced me to stand up for myself. Being forced to make this choice repeatedly gave me pride in the kinds of things that I cared about. As the years slipped by, I discovered that creating a family and home that I could believe in was intrinsically worthwhile. It’s not, I hasten to add, the only worthwhile thing one can do with one’s life. Still I want to be clear, even at this juncture, how sustaining family life has been for me. It has been an amazing blessing. 

Last night, before sleeping, I flicked through the journal (a present from James) that I keep tucked into the side of my bed with a pencil inside to ruin its spine. Each of the dot-point entries in it captures a moment – an exchange on the dog beach, a comment from one of my kids, a hint of spring on a branch – that washes into my memory last thing at night. Its pages are a record of little things that make up my world, a daily reminder of what, for me, is worth living for. As I flicked through the pages before turning out the light, I was struck, even as I added the three things that I was grateful for yesterday, that none of these moments would disappear from my life because James has had a change of heart and has chosen to live mostly in Europe.

dog guilt

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Sitting on a stool in a local cafe, I crawl my way through the national newspaper, agog at how much can go wrong on one planet over the course of a single day. I’ve just taught a lunch-time yoga class, and had hoped to order something to eat. But the kitchen closed five minutes ago and the only food available is spiced nuts and deep-fried somethings. Still, when my soda water arrives with slices of lime, its paper straw furry with bubbles, it refreshes me. Also, the very fact of sitting in a cafe, when half of all Australians are barred from doing this due to Covid, feels salutory.

It seems trivial to be talking about dog guilt – ‘what exactly is that?’ – when so much is awry with the world. However, this feeling, which has been on my mind for months, will remain with me even after the world calms down. So, what is dog guilt? Well, it’s the feeling that my dog prompts in me when I don’t meet his needs, when I don’t take him for walks or play with him; and all for the reason, inexplicable to him, that I have More Important Things To Do.

It is the lot of dogs to be confounded by their human owners. ‘What do you mean’, Digger’s eyes say to me (Labrador eyes are very expressive) ‘that you don’t have time to take me for a walk?’ Of course, I do know that Digger doesn’t have the actual thought that I should spend more time with him. Any more than he forms the wish that I would stop listening to Audible books when we’re on bush tracks together. No, he much prefers to yank on his lead in his annoying, pay-back way. I am also aware that, as intelligent as Digger is – a point which my daughter questions, although I think this is to absolve her of dog guilt – that as a dog he doesn’t think as I do. He has no idea how guilty he makes me feel when he looks up at me with his hang-dog eyes.

Three years ago, when Digger was a puppy who gnawed on chair legs with crocodile teeth, my daughter lived at home. I would never have got a Labrador puppy had it not been for Emma; more precisely, if it hadn’t been for our need, as a family, for a friendly, solid dog after the trauma of having to put down our previous neurotic farm dog. I knew, in some abstract way which didn’t feel quite real – in the same way that until recently climate change hasn’t felt real – that one day Emma would move out of home, leaving behind a by then large dog who needed regular walks. In those days, I accepted this wilful blindness of mine. Faced with the choice between family happiness and long-term personal freedom, I chose family happiness.

Even after I gave up asking Emma to take Digger to puppy school – the deal that she and I struck on collecting Digger from the breeder – I refused to peer around the corner. Despite mounting evidence, in my mind Digger was still more Emma’s dog than mine. Emma, I told myself, was simply too busy with her sailing to attend Saturday morning puppy class. Besides, as Emma always told me when we walked Digger together, she was far better at dog training than I was.  

Kids are mostly immune from feeling complicated about their family dog’s quality of life. Last week, when I told Emma that the woman who runs the dog kennel where Digger rushes round with 20 other dogs, suggested that I try Digger on a raw food diet, Emma scoffed. I could only contemplate feeding our dog raw food, her rolling eyes hinted, because my nest was emptying. ‘Besides’, Emma added, as if this nailed it, ‘Digger’s just a dog’.

As is so often the case when it comes to strong opinions, Emma was both right and wrong. She was right in that I do care about the quality of our dog’s life. I do feel responsible for Digger’s well-being. In this sense, he is my dog. My thinking about Digger goes like this. With any luck, I’ll outlive him. This means that, for the next ten years or so, the least I can do is to give him a decent life. However, Emma was also wrong. Because I feel certain that, when she is in a position to get her own dog, which I know she wants, that she will care just as much about her dog’s wellbeing as I currently do Digger’s. Once she has a dog who looks up at her with the pointed longing that I’m trying to describe, dog guilt won’t seem like a middle-class affectation. When it’s directed at her and she is its target, she too will feel its prick.

In the meantime, I ward off Digger’s hang-dog expression by taking him for two walks a day, and other things too. I anyway figure that it’s good for me to be forced into the elements by my canine pedometer and antidepressant rolled into one, no matter how blustery the weather. In this sense, dog guilt has its upside. However quickly the sky seems to be falling in other parts of the world, on muddy paths with my raincoat zipped up, I stay sane and happy.

Research shows (don’t you love paragraphs that start with ‘research shows’?) that part of the benefit of spending time in nature comes down to the microscopic exchange that occurs between the spores, funghi and sap of trees and the teaming microbiome that lives on the surface of our skin. Through a complicated dance that is beyond my powers to explain, being in nature triggers the release of serotonin and dopamine, the happy hormones.

So it’s not just natural beauty that leaves me feeling good about life, as I return home after walking my dog. It’s the invisible exchange that joins me, mesh-like, to the world that I’m surrounded by. Who could have thought that a twice daily dose of dog guilt could be so beneficial?

reward!

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Dear Reader

I have a favour to ask and a reward to offer. As a reader of this blog, you’ve probably picked up that I’m interested in home, family and the domestic arts. Like you, I expect, I don’t find looking after my home and its inhabitants easy. Some days it drives me crazy. Still, I think domesticity is interesting and worth understanding – more than we give it credit.

Partly arising out of this 10-year-old blog, I have written a memoir about housekeeping. It spans 30 years and traces the revolution in my attitude to the stuff of daily life. The chores that I hated at 20, and the comforts of home that I escaped when I left it, are now the bedrock of my existence. In Praise of Housekeeping is the story of how I came to appreciate the value of what goes into caring for our homes, ourselves, our loved ones and our planet.

In Praise of Housekeeping is now complete, and an agent is sending the manuscript to publishers. This presents a special challenge. Last week, the manuscript was passed over by a big publisher because its marketing department wasn’t confident that sales for the book would be sufficiently high, after the modest sales of my last book. Once upon a time, I worked in publishing in London. The market was tough then. These days, it’s even tougher. However strongly an editor champions a manuscript, if marketing isn’t confident of getting it over the line, it’s out.

Yesterday, a marketing friend came up with an idea which, being a shy writer not a bold marketer, hadn’t occurred to me. It’s this. If, dear reader, you can spare five minutes to read the introduction to In Praise of Housekeeping (pasted below), and some of the ideas in it ring a bell with you, if you could follow it up with comment (and email), I will send you either:

  1. the e-version of my last book, A Slow Childhood: Notes on thoughtful parenting (with a foreword by Alain de Botton)
  2. a free copy of In Praise of Housekeeping as soon as it’s published
  3. or should you prefer your marshmallow now, the foreword to In Praise of Housekeeping, again by Alain de Botton (it’s a punchy read…)

So here it is, the 3000-word introduction to In Praise of Housekeeping. Happy reading!

Introduction

Whenever I’m taken up with housekeeping, and answer the front door in an apron, the person on the doorstep looks me up and down. What’s normal for me, protecting my clothes as I tip stock into a colander, mix dough or vacuum floors, is less so for others. Wearing an apron to the door late in the afternoon, seems as provocative as opening it in pyjamas early in the morning.

I didn’t start out in life wearing an apron. As a girl, I hardly thought about my home, which I mostly took for granted. Whenever it did cross my mind, I sided with the writer Rose McAuley who thought that ‘a well-kept house was a sign of a misspent life’. Domestic life was a tangle of repetitive, unfulfilling tasks that paid work was designed to release people from. Like my friends, I assumed that caring about domesticity meant avoiding the real challenges of life. So totally did I believe this, I rarely heard this side of life mentioned. It just went without saying. And if ever the topic did come up, I scoffed at the idea that running a home – growing vegetables, home decorating, spring cleaning – could ever fill me with pride.

On leaving Australia for London, after an Arts degree in my home town of Adelaide, I felt confident that the woman that I hoped to become would emerge through my career, my self-esteem growing as I met the demands of the world. A string of shared flats, north and south of the Thames, were a mere backdrop to my working life. It wasn’t until I moved into a studio flat, in my late 20s, that the place where I lived played a role in making sense of my life beyond it. Only then did I stop for long enough to realise that what I’d left Adelaide to escape, the comforts of home, weren’t to be despised.

Still, I continued to run away from housekeeping for five more years. Until one day, midway through my 30s, there was nowhere to hide. Until that is, I became a mother. From day one of motherhood, the emotional, imaginative and physical work of looking after my baby and home was demanding. Unwilling to live amidst sprawling mess, I was forced to prioritise housekeeping. If I was to look forward to getting out of bed each morning, I had no choice but to stay on top of household tasks. I could no longer put them off till the weekend. Laundry, cooking, organising, errands, shopping and cleaning became urgent, imperative even. My life may not depend on these things, but my sanity and wellbeing did. Looking after my home in an intelligent way, creating a pleasant atmosphere there, keeping surfaces clean and tidy, and expressing the love that made sense of the whole endeavour – these didn’t happen by magic. No matter what was going on in other parts of my life housekeeping demanded time, thought, creativity and effort.

By the time I had my second child, I’d come to accept that there is an art to running a home. I knew that a warm and attractive living space isn’t something that happens naturally. If anything, the opposite. A pleasant, welcoming home is an achievement that assumes hundreds of small efforts in support of this ideal. I just wasn’t convinced that these efforts were worth it. How could homely satisfactions, I reasoned, like cooking, gardening and renovating, hold their own against foot-on-the-ladder, worldly strivings? Might I disappear, like Alice down the rabbit hole, if I gave in to my desire for home-cooked meals, line-dried sheets and garden beds?

Around the time my kids reached the ages of two and four, I fell down the rabbit hole, returning to Melbourne with my husband and family, in search of a better quality of life than seemed possible for us in London. I was excited about the move. It was what I’d been longing for. But then, within a year of moving out of a small flat in London, into a house with a garden in Melbourne, I developed a fear of being at home. I felt overwhelmed by everything there was to do there. Where to start? I’d gotten what I wanted – a family, a house and interesting part-time teaching. Yet I missed the pre-child me, the woman who knew what she was doing between 9 and 4 on weekdays, the scheduled me. Teaching part-time became code for spending the after-school hours chasing my tail at home. Bossed about by things I felt I should be doing, time slipped like sand through my fingers, the big hand on the kitchen clock whizzing mockingly round its face. Should I be pairing socks or calling my elderly aunt? Preparing dinner or checking my diary? Taking my kids to the park or fixing the sprinkler out the back? Feeding the worms or vacuuming the floors?

It was at this point, tired of splattering cooking oil on my clothes, that I bought my first apron. Doing up this black linen apron had an immediate effect. I felt less stressed. I still brought in the washing and prepared dinner. However, wearing an apron stopped the chatter in my head that told me I should be doing something else. I didn’t drop by my desk to check on the writing I wasn’t doing, the emails I wasn’t sending. I just got on with whatever needed attending to, around the house, and then felt better for having done it. Because until I took off my apron, my job was housekeeping.

So what, exactly, is housekeeping? Housekeeping is the sum of all our efforts at home. It’s seeking a level of order that we never quite achieve. It’s caring about a raft of things that we otherwise wouldn’t care about for the sake of a pleasant home. Housework is part of it. The domestic arts – cooking, gardening, renovating – are part of it. The thousand and one acts that add up to a well-run home are part of it. Then there is love. Love is the glue that holds together the everything there is to do at home. Without it, there wouldn’t be much point, bar survival, in any of our domestic efforts. Housekeeping is the whole constant, insane, wonderful juggle of keeping up a home worth loving.

Housekeeping, I soon realised, doesn’t relate solely to the home. It’s an attitude, an existential approach to life that reaches beyond it. It takes in just about everything that goes into how we live our life. This is how it goes for me. It’s sharing a family bathroom with a thought for the person using it next. It’s having a reusable bag at the supermarket check-out. It’s banging sink strainers into the bin straight after washing up. It’s digging holes in the garden before the plants I fell for in the nursery get root-bound in their pots. It’s airing duvets outside on sunny days. It’s giving a thought to the evening meal ahead of time. It’s picking herbs as I pass through the garden, knowing how much I hate fetching them in the dark. It’s borrowing cookery books from the library when I tire of my own cooking. It’s folding tea towels straight off the line because it’s heartening opening the drawer to a neat stack. It’s taking a sewing class after despairing at being unable to fit a zip. It’s stashing chicken bones in the freezer and then defrosting the stock that I go on to make from them. It’s filling hot water bottles on cold nights and remembering to replace them once a year. It’s taking appliances to be repaired and picking them up when they’re fixed. It’s keeping an eye on the freezer so that it stays my friend and doesn’t, back turned, become my enemy. And it’s vacuuming dog hair and sand from the car seats.

Mostly, once my apron is off and the weekend comes around, I feel free to do what I like doing at home. Renovating, cooking, sewing, entertaining, gardening – these draw me out of myself, beyond my daily busyness, my noisy ego and my determination to get things done. They give back in surprising ways. Immersed in one of these activities, I feel at one with time passing. I gain valuable breathing space, away from family and work, to get on with just being me. There is, I’ve discovered, beauty in the ordinary. I never stop caring about my writing work. However, the things I get up to at home are on another level. Crunching scissors into fabric, slapping dough on a bench and spying seedlings poking through the soil – these feel deeply satisfying. Lying in bed on Sunday night, thinking back on my day, it’s making pastry and winding bean tendrils round a stake that flash through my mind. And while I’ll never be expert at baking or gardening, just tackling them gives me a sense of buoyancy, of lift, which keeps bringing me back to them.

Socially, when I’m asked the ‘What do you do?’ question, I say that I write and teach yoga. It’s true, I do write every day. I do teach yoga twice a week. Rarely, however, do I tell people about my job. This is because my job seems less acceptable, less noteworthy than my writing work, even though it can be every bit as challenging and time consuming. My job stretches and inspires me. It has long hours, low status and is unregulated. It isn’t quite a calling, though some days it feels like one. Until my kids leave home, my job is to keep our home running smoothly without shouting or moaning too much. My job is housekeeping.

It isn’t just me. Countless people keep their homes running smoothly without shouting or moaning too much. They may not feel called to it, as I do. They may not treat it as a job nor wear an apron doing it. Nonetheless, they spend a similar amount of time shopping, cleaning, cooking, organising and maintaining things – and generally making things happen at home. And then clearing up after. Like me, they don’t consider this their main work. Certainly, the world doesn’t. This may be why we tend not to bring it up in conversation. Mostly, we just get on and do it. Still, measured in hours, devotion, effort and skill, it makes up a big part, up to a quarter, of our waking hours.

Now that my kids are older, and we live in Hobart, I find that many of my deepest pleasures are domestic. I love slipping into a freshly-made bed. I adore sipping tea at the kitchen table. I look forward to choosing fabric for a sewing project. And I’m always looking for excuses to visit the plant nursery. Doing these things returns me to childhood joys. But they also give me a sense of satisfaction and well-being like nothing else. Still, even though a Saturday afternoon spent gardening is a simple thing, it isn’t an easy thing. It assumes time, energy and imagination, of course. But it also assumes love. Perhaps this is why, whenever I feel overwhelmed, and my heart shrinks just a little, gardening and piano are the first things to disappear from my week, however much I miss them when they do.

I am a domestic realist, and am not a sentimentalist nor an idealist. I’m keen to find satisfaction at home. But I’m also alive to the tentacle-like hold of housekeeping. While spending time at home allows me to express myself creatively, away from the public eye, it also has a habit of slipping into a spiral of unfinished chores. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, with too few mops and buckets to halt the flooding basement steps, in the wrong mood, housework can feel like a trap.

I’m aware that housework has a bad reputation. For nearly everyone I know, it’s a source of stress and frustration. It frustrates me too. Except it isn’t only frustration that I feel when I do it. Once I pull on my apron, and get on with household tasks, I nearly always take off my apron feeling better about myself than when I put it on. Housework takes real energy. But it’s also energising. It gives me something back.

I’m not alone in having mixed feelings for housekeeping. As for so many others, there is a push-pull in my relationship to it. This may be because it encompasses so much. Staying on top of my home’s day-to-day running, creating pleasant living spaces, cleaning up after myself and my family, and sustaining the love that makes this housekeeping feel worthwhile – these are very different activities. Could this explain the heated confusion that arises whenever the subject of domesticity does come up?

Fifteen years after having kids, and two months after my mother entered a nursing home, I decided it was time that I understood housekeeping better. The big questions that haunted me, since my early 20s, finally caught up with me. Is it possible, I asked myself, to find meaning and satisfaction in the daily tasks of living? Do the challenges that domesticity throws up have something to teach us about life itself?

I began by reading everything I could find on the subject. This proved so fascinating that it took a while to realise this didn’t answer what was really an existential question about the value of the time and energy I gave to housekeeping. So, I did an about-turn. Instead of fossicking in the library or burrowing on-line, I would use my experience of housekeeping to answer my own questions. I would be both scientist and student. I wouldn’t don a white coat. But I would tell the story of my unfolding relationship to housekeeping, from watching my mother around the house as a girl, to clearing up after my husband and teenagers in the home I once dreamed of and now run single-handed. And in telling this story, I would find out whether an attractive home is indeed worth the effort that maintaining it demands.

For all my questioning, whenever I take off my watch and do my own thing at home, I enjoy myself. I love smelling a slow-cooked casserole filling the house in winter. I feel like the girl I once was when I come back inside from the garden with late summer tomatoes warming each hand. I may struggle to credit these things as valuable, but they always bring me joy. As I know they bring joy to others, too.

A few years ago, at the end of a phone call with my mother, from her nursing-home in Adelaide to my kitchen in Hobart, she asked whether I thought that she’d wasted her life. Assuming I’d misheard her – she had always staunchly defended the value of home life – I asked her to repeat her question. She did so, with more insistence. ‘Course not’, I said, feeling offended on her behalf, and listed her accomplishments as they streamed through my mind, from running a family home, farming, charity work, gardening and various sports, to a loyal circle of friends.

That question stayed with me, is still with me. In the months following that phone call, I kept returning to it. Because what I’d heard my mother ask, through the echo chamber of our relationship, was whether I thought she’d wasted her life caring for family, housekeeping, and all the other things she’d devoted herself to. She hadn’t wasted her life, I told myself. Or had she?

In a way, everything that follows is a response to this question. Because it’s not just my mother’s question. Ultimately, to the degree that we value looking after ourselves, our home and the people we care about, it’s everyone’s question.

kitchen timer

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‘Working hard at something we don’t care about is called stress,

working hard at something we do care about is called passion’.

Simon Sinek

When I first read this idea, that working hard at something we don’t care about is called stress, and working hard at something we do care about is called passion, I copied it into the yellow notebook I carry round with me. ‘Yes’, I thought, scribbling down the words, ‘that sounds right’. Sinek’s idea seemed like something that, were I too a marketing consultant, I might have come up with myself. It was oddly familiar, perhaps because it taps into the kind of beliefs I grew up with and now feel surrounded by.

As someone who experiences quite a lot of stress, I found Sinek’s idea unsettling. ‘Surely stress and passion are more complicated than that?’ I asked myself, the next day. I opened my notebook and stared at Sinek’s words. In his pithy definition, he seemed to be promoting single-minded passion over compromised, stressful work. Stress – that feeling of too-muchness, of facing more than we can handle – is bad, he seemed to be saying. While passion – that needle-point focus on one goal – is good.

These days, these mid-life days, a significant amount of my time at home is spent working hard at things that I ultimately don’t care about. I am not a masochist. Nor, touch wood, am I dim. It’s rather a psychological dilemma that I face. And it’s this. I don’t seem to be able to get the conscious and unconscious parts of my mind to come to an agreement on what is worth caring about. I’m unable to stop my unconscious mind from caring about things like clean sheets, compost and soaked legumes, that my socially-conditioned conscious mind thinks might not, in the scheme of things, really matter. Hence the stress I often feel engaged in household tasks.

To get around this, I’ve taken to setting a timer on arriving home late afternoon. It’s the only timer in the kitchen that isn’t broken, I suspect because it knows that I like it the least. After fishing this timer out of the utensil drawer – perfectly placed to catch breadcrumbs from the oven above – I set the minute timer to 60 and clap it to the metal top of the hob. With this satisfying clap, of magnet fastening on to metal, I tie up my denim apron and go for it.

The next hour is broken into household-sized fragments – trips to the bins outside, the laundry downstairs, the bedrooms upstairs and the fridge in the pantry. All the while, the dog sits on the back door step, with an occasional bark to put a neighbouring dog in its place. There he sits, lone sentinel to my bustle next door – the chopping of vegetables, the unpacking of the dishwasher, the hum of the carpet sweeper.

For years, I waged a personal war over the value of the time that I spent housekeeping. Until one day I said ‘enough’, and fished out a kitchen timer from the drawer. I’d read somewhere about the Pomodoro technique, and thought it worth a try. Initially, I set a timer as an experiment. And from day one, it worked. I think it worked because it put a frame around my housekeeping, creating a before and after, a domestic bubble. It helped to overcome my resistance to certain tasks, and to breathe into the hour ahead.

Nowadays, each time I fix the kitchen timer to the stove top, the same thing happens. I relax. This white electronic timer stops me from feeling stressed. It tells my unconscious that there is no need to worry, that only a finite amount of my afternoon will be given over to household tasks. It functions as a green light, allowing me to beetle about the house, doing as much washing, cooking and gardening as possible inside an hour. Importantly, setting a timer helps me over the initial hump of housekeeping (and in my experience, there is always a hump). Its ‘tick, tick, tick’ stalls my thoughts, protecting me from all the other things I could be doing during this time. In accepting my place in the domestic wheel of life, my inner chatter fades and I just get on with it.

This moment of surrender, of the metal timer hitting the stove top, so quick as to be unnoticeable, is when the magic happens. For the next hour, I’m safe from conflicting thoughts, from stress. I’m in the zone, and can enjoy simple household tasks that, while I don’t relish them, leave me feeling good about life as a whole. Inside this hour, I’m able to care about things that I otherwise might not, and in this way gain release.

I don’t love housekeeping. I’ll never be passionate about it. (My psychological life would be simpler if I did.) The pleasure that I get from looking after my home is inverse. What I love is not feeling emotionally complicated about housekeeping – about prepping food, tending plants and cleaning the hob. I love feeling in flow, without resistance, at one with my home. And when the hour is up, I feel proud of being able to stay on top of my home’s running.

Usually, I go over the allotted hour. When the timer goes off – ‘beep-beep, beep-beep!’ – I rarely whip off my apron. Still, as a strategy, setting a timer does seem to work. I think it’s because, by objectifying the time that I spend on domestic tasks that my ego, Simon Sinek and society at large don’t credit, my housekeeping becomes real. Rather than trivial daily tasks, it becomes something almost solid that can be measured by the tick-tick-tick of a white plastic timer. Even though the dog on the back doorstep is often the only other living creature aware of my doing it.

We live in a world which puts a higher value on pursuing our passions than on caring for others, our home and ourselves. This is not a good or bad thing, it just is. Still, what this means is that many of us going around feeling that the work of looking after our family, ourselves and home is at odds with the work of fulfilling our ambitions. Perhaps we are a mother, struggling with home schooling, or an older man nursing a knee replacement. Or perhaps we are doing our best to stay on top of a generally happy but messy household, in the run up before dinner. In all these situations, we’re liable to feel as if we are living back to front. Our day is full of care, yet there is less room for passion than we might like there to be. And it’s this discrepancy, this feeling of being at odds with ourselves, of somehow falling short of our heart’s desires, that accounts for a lot of the stress that we feel at home.  

Passions, much like true love, have survived our modern age intact. No matter how confused our society may be, about what matters most in life, our passions are admired, even revered.There seems something pure and inviolable about our efforts to realise our ambitions and passions. Whether this takes the form of a new digital brand, a sustainable start-up or a life-long violin practice, being passionate and ambitious is widely considered a good thing. Rarely do we criticize or subject our passions and ambitions to scrutiny.

As a rule, stress is less well regarded. Stress, psychologists tell us, is an effect of how our mind perceives what happens to us. An event in itself isn’t stressful, only our response to it is. This explanation places the onus on us, as individuals, not to experience as stressful something that a more resilient person might be able to move on from. In this way, feeling stressed is, through a behavioural glitch, our fault. Stress is a personal problem, rather than an effect of the confused beliefs that infuse society as a whole.  

There’s a problem here. This explanation of stress – that events aren’t stressful, only our responses to them are – is based on the assumption that our society broadly agrees on what matters most. But clearly it doesn’t. This is where things get sticky for those of us who do a fair amount of caring. Because in the absence of a consensus about matters most in life, the caring work that we do – work that our unconscious mind knows matters and that our conscious mind doubts the value of – gains little credit. And so by an awkward twist, rather than the caring work that we do increasing our sense of self-worth, it generates stress.

When we care for others, ourselves and our home, our ambitions and passions are shelved for a while. Perhaps this is why most of us have a finite amount of energy for caring. The work of caring about things that we both do and don’t care about, for the sake of people and a way of life that we love, just is tiring. All of us need breaks from caring in order to refresh ourselves. We need time off from trying to square the circle – from getting the unconscious and conscious parts of ourselves to agree on what matters most.

The solution to spending too much time in caring work is simpler to describe than to do. Instead of pouring all our time and energy into things that, on our death bed, we’re unlikely to consider important, we need to be able to lose ourselves in activities that we do care about, that we are passionate about, and that don’t generate stress. Not least because when we’re free to do those things that we like doing most, the split within us, which arises when we care too much and for too long, and that we experience as stress, gets to heal.

Which brings me back to my kitchen timer, and to the way it helps to frame my domestic role. For the brief second in which I fix it to the stove top, I feel in good company with all the efforts that I feel sure that other people are making, in homes around the globe, to keep their domestic life afloat. They may not, as I do, turn on a kitchen timer or tie up an apron. Still, like me, they feel the tug of everything else that they could be doing with the time and energy that they give to housekeeping. Yet they still go about preparing dinner and bringing in the washing. Perhaps because, like me, they feel, in a deep part of themselves, that it’s worthwhile to do so.

It seems odd to be thankful for a plastic kitchen timer. But I am.

an alternative to mindfulness

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When I embarked on motherhood, with eyes wide shut, I decided that if I gave everything to family life I’d still have enough life left over, afterwards, to be creative in a single-minded way that I was incapable of being as long as my kids were wanting snacks after school and lifts in the car from here to there. I worked every day of motherhood. I never mistook my kids for the world. Still, I was lucky in the sense that, at sticky moments, I never had to tell them that my work was more important than they were. My work was important, I was clear about that, just not more important than them.

When they were young, I too jumped in muddy puddles. But not in anything like the way I stomped in them when I was a girl. As a mother, I thought about laundry, about consequences. As a kid, I did not. I was in the moment as a mother, but always with an eye on what was coming next – on dinner that night or school the next day. Family life went by so whizzingly fast there seemed to be few opportunities to look around and survey the scene. Whenever I did sit back, it was as if I was watching my kids grow, the pencil markings nudging up the side of the kitchen door.

‘Got much planned for the weekend?’ asks my local barista, banging a frothy milk jug on the counter and barely looking up. ‘Not much’, I say. ‘Friends for dinner, the dog to the beach, a small mountain of leaves to rake up’. He smiles, I wave and, as I push open the café door, I get together a mental list for the shop over the road – eggs, bread and onions.

What books about mindfulness don’t point out is that in order to take a break from our thoughts and feelings it’s not enough to immerse ourselves in the present – to eat sultanas slowly. Our mind doesn’t have knobs that can be turned up or down, on or off. We can’t just tell ourselves to relax and be mindful.

Over time, I’ve been more drawn to the act of winnowing, than to mindfulness. Winnowing is an age-old agricultural process in which heads of grain are thrown into the air before the heads are caught on the way back down in a sieve, the mesh of which is wide enough to catch the heads of grain while the husks pass through. Winnowing catches something powerful about the need I feel, now and then, to shake up everything that makes up my day, my life, my work, my home, my family. To do a mental stock-take. To throw everything into the air in order to see what remains after its fall back down, discarding what is no longer of value, what no longer serves. It’s akin to what happens during travel – only without having to pack and leave home.

It’s easy to think, society encourages us to think, that with a bit more control over our surroundings, we will better inhabit our present. Some do this by imposing order on our surroundings, perhaps by giving away everything that doesn’t spark joy. Others adopt a physical regime, or way of eating, that promises control over our body and a reduced environmental footprint. Others again, myself included, find sanctuary in a practice like yoga, by releasing ourselves physically to bring about a stillness of mind that heals the split between mind and body.

In my 20s, I was particularly drawn to the idea of epiphanies. Many of the books I read reached their climax in a moment in time that encapsulated the meaning of the main character’s life, after which everything fell into place. Reading descriptions of these moments made me long for an epiphany that would order everything in my own life up to that point, guiding me into the future. But sadly, I never had an epiphany. I experienced numerous turning points, over the years, but no single epiphany.

Nearly a hundred years ago, Marion Milner wrote A Life of One’s Own under the pseudonym of Joanna Field. The book takes from eight years of diary entries in which, a young mother and practicing psychologist, Milner explores her thoughts and feelings with the aim of discovering what gives her deep and abiding pleasure. She starts from the premise that what she thinks she likes doing may not be the same as what she actually likes doing, that what her ego seeks and what her soul longs for may diverge. With time, Milner realises that the act of describing her thoughts and feelings when she attends a music concert, say, or darns a stocking (imagine that!), changes her experience. The act of putting into words her daily comings and goings makes her more observant. The quality of her experience is enhanced. By stepping outside her head, she sees things as they really are rather than as her ego wants them to be. Writing down her thoughts on a daily basis has the effect of making her feel ‘less Rodin’s thinker and more a watcher in the woods’.

For years, the combined impact of kids and work gave me the perfect excuse not to winnow. Only rarely did I have time to create the kind of mental space that made it possible to sift the important from the less important. For much of the time, I felt neither watchful nor at ease. For too much of the time, I was quietly stressed. I expended so much time and energy caring about things that I didn’t really care about, that husk was forever rising up and clouding my vision.

These days, I find it easier to distinguish the wheat from the chaff when out in nature, or in the contained space of my car. I winnow out walking the dog, or on long drives. Insights rarely come to me on mountain tops, or when I’m super busy. Often, they come when I’m doing something with my hands. I might be gardening, or kneading dough after it’s come together to form a ball. Or drawing at the kitchen table. This is when the trapdoor between my conscious and unconscious mind lifts, allowing free traffic.

For years, I tried to be mindful. It seemed such a straightforwardly good idea. I did the washing up mindfully (and failed). I did yoga mindfully (and mostly failed). Eventually I decided that, rather than trying to quieten my mind and rather than leaving my ego outside the door, I would do something more native to me than doing nothing. I would engage with whatever creative activity I was doing so keenly that everything else dropped from view. My alternative to mindfulness was that simple.

I have a busy mind. Much of my day is spent caring about things that I don’t really care about for the sake of a greater good so precious and fragile – family love – that I dare not declare it. This may be why I’m drawn to creative activities that invite a two-way conversation between my unconscious and conscious mind, that leave me feeling buoyant, lifted. It may also be why I’ll never finish winnowing. This should be no surprise. Because for as long as we have life, there is grain to thresh.