life writing

resentment and gratitude


We talk about gratitude a lot. We know it’s what we are supposed to feel when we reflect on our life. I know it’s what I’d like my kids to express more of. We imagine it as a pure well of feeling, the milk of human kindness. However we don’t talk about gratitude’s ugly step-sister very much, even though most of us receive regular visits from her. Resentment, the uncomfortable feeling of hugging bitterness for others to ourselves, is not something that we keep a journal about. We don’t record or treasure our bitter feelings. We shrug them off, hoping they’ll stay that way. We don’t sit down late at night with a cup of hot something and write down the five things that made us feel resentful that day.


Resentment is the cup of poison that you pour for another and then drink yourself. This is why it can’t be shrugged off. Because once we’ve taken it in to ourselves it becomes part of us. Even if we’ve done nothing wrong, we’ve had bad thoughts, and so at some level are guilty of them.


Lately my teenage daughter has taken to resenting her elder brother. She resents that he has finished school and is doing what he supposedly wants to do. She resents his freedom and even his fitness. After a long illness that has left her feeling weaker, she wishes that she had more of what he seems to have – life force or whatever you want to call it. Even though, from my point of view, my daughter has no cause to resent her brother. Can’t she see the strengths in herself that everyone else can plainly see?


Over the years I too have had my resentments. For a long time I resented my more successful, better educated, better travelled husband. Just as I resented certain more worldly, more self-assured and go-ahead friends. Of course I didn’t think a bit well of myself for feeling resentful in this way. I felt small and slightly ashamed of myself. I have so many advantages, I’d say to myself, how could I possibly resent the successes of others?


Just like my daughter, fearful of her looming exams, I’d negatively compare myself with my successful husband and friends to the degree that I felt insecure about my own prospects. (‘We cannot perceive objects in themselves’, wrote Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow, ‘but only in relation to an anchor point.) When my children were young, and my husband seemed to be galloping ahead in his career, resentment of his success seemed the rational response. It seemed common sense that I might resent his advantages – his network of mentors, his work ethic and his disregard for domestic responsibility.


But then something happened which, at the time, I barely noticed. My husband and I drifted into a traditional marriage and over a few years my resentments dried up. The more empowered I felt in my work and at home the less I compared myself to him. We moved into such different spheres that comparisons became irrelevant. I didn’t stop caring about what my husband thought of me. And I still reacted when he corrected me or asked for clarification on something. However my compass had moved – which meant that his opinions, or more precisely what I imagined were his opinions, were no longer the anchor point by which I measured my own worth.


Has this made me stronger? Perhaps. Certainly it has made me more relaxed. And I definitely feel more grateful for the life I actually live. Because just as resentment is a sign of a bruised ego, gratitude reflects a content soul. This is why I know it’s useless for me to tell my daughter to be grateful, in the ‘pull yourself together and be thankful for your blessings’ sort of way. As a loving mother I do feel this – sometimes my exasperation when she is moody for no reason is colossal. However mostly I manage to curb my exasperation. Because I know that not expressing gratitude is not the same as being ungrateful – as my own mother sometimes made me feel. I know that when your gratitude is blocked by resentment there is nothing to be done but to wait for the resentment to dissolve.


My daughter doesn’t need to be made to watch a documentary on orphaned children in Syria. It’s not my job to make her grateful for her materially blessed life. Because when she resents her brother’s freedoms she is talking about something more intimate than the daily conditions of her life. Rather she is saying to me, ‘Look, this is where I feel bruised. This is where I need to heal. So please don’t press on this place and make it worse’.


Thankfully my daughter is healing. When, before school yesterday, she spied in an email a photo of her brother jumping off a tall ship into blue Atlantic waters, it wasn’t resentment that she automatically felt. Envy perhaps, but not resentment. Because these days, whether she knows it or not, her compass is shifting. She still orients herself via fixed points – clever/stupid, strong/weak, fat/thin. However her hold on them is loosening. And as she lets them go, and mourns the certainties of childhood, the more relaxed and playful she becomes – and the more she plays the piano.


This essay – a longish one – has been on my mind for years now, fed partly by responses to readers of this blog. It’s about why we value what we do at home. Thank you all, Helen. http://velamag.com/homework/screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-9-15-39-am




Of course I want feedback on the manuscript that I’ve been writing on and off for fifteen years. Of course I want to hear my new editor’s thoughts about it. Up until, that is, she drops the qualifier ‘but’ into a sentence. At which point I wanted her feedback to stop.


The baby whom my new editor promised would be asleep during our phone call mews. We are not alone. Just as my mind was half on my baby whenever I chatted on the phone all those years ago, so is my new editor’s today. She laughs. ‘I really meant for her to be asleep’, she apologises. ‘Really don’t worry about it’, I say. ‘I remember it well’, I add, aware that the mere passage of time relegate me to the position of the older mother.


‘You know’, my new editor says, ‘all the time I was reading your manuscript I was wondering whether you had resolved the struggle you write about, when your children were young, between wanting to be there for them and wanting to succeed in the world’. ‘No’, I reply. ‘I still feel it. I still live that conflict. Perhaps’, I say, thinking aloud, ‘I always will’. ‘Oh’, she says, whether disappointed or not I can’t tell.


Our conversation to and fro’s. The editor mentions that she will be returning to work full-time in January, with two children under four. ‘The sensible choice that I didn’t make’, I think to myself, wondering if reading my manuscript helped to cement her decision. I mention my fear that readers may find my ideas dated. ‘No’, the editor says. ‘The manuscript reads freshly to me. I often found myself making comparisons with my own experience as a mother’. ‘That’s good’, I say, relieved.


‘Another thing sprang to mind while I was reading your manuscript’, the editor says. ‘I’ve only read it through once. But when I was reading it I found myself wondering whether you and your husband were still together. The way you write made me feel you might not be’. There is a pause. ‘Really?’ I reply. ‘Well actually we are, although I do see how you might think that. It might be because I tend to write about the parts of my life that I find tricky and that I need to understand through writing about them.’ Another pause. ‘Although if I’m honest I can also see that being close to my children has lead to less intimacy in my marriage. I guess some readers will judge me for this – I’m not looking forward to that bit. But I wanted to be true to my experience, in writing about it, and this has been my experience. On the other hand I’m married to someone who has allowed me to write about our marriage, which counts for something. Besides’, I add, ‘the last chapter makes it clear where my heart lies’. ‘Yes’, she replies, and we move on.


The first time my new editor uses the rewrite word I don’t pick up on it. But the second time she drops it in I can hear nothing else. ‘Is she serious? But I’ve done with this manuscript’, I think to myself. ‘Finished!’ Keen as I am to publish the manuscript that has been in and out of a drawer since my children were born, I don’t actually want to rewrite it. ‘Isn’t that your job?’ I feel tempted to ask my new editor. Except that I know I can’t ask this. I know that making my work publishable is as much my job as hers. And that for this to happen my new editor and I will be working on it together in the months ahead.


I brace myself to ask a last question. ‘Do you’, I hesitate, feeling a game of snakes and ladders in my stomach, ‘want me to rewrite the whole manuscript?’ ‘Yes and no,’ the editor replies with a laugh. ‘It’s more tightening that it needs. I think that if we think about it in terms of chapters, with each chapter a solid thing, and using your synopsis as a frame, that this next stage won’t be too overwhelming.’


Gulping yet wanting to stay upbeat I change the subject. ‘Do you think’, I ask, ‘that you will want to market the book as a memoir or self-help?’ ‘For me it’s a memoir’, she replies. ‘It’s about your struggle to come to grips with something that – while you don’t resolve it – the process of figuring it out in words allows you to grow from.’ ‘Sure, that sounds right’, I say, struck by the weirdness of my experience of motherhood being summed up in a sentence.


‘So does that mean the book will end up in the Biography section of the bookshop?’ ‘Well’, the editor replies, ‘when I ran a bookshop we had lots of books that didn’t fit into a particular section. For these books I created a section called ‘Madness’. I reckon yours would fit into that’. This time we both laugh. At which point her baby cries loud enough for us both to know that our phone call is at an end – and that once I receive her notes it will be up to me to respond to her feedback. To rewrite parts of A Slow Childhood that I’d thought, until twenty minutes ago, I’d left far behind.

letter to my father


My daughter, who you never met but would I know like, is doing a project in English at school at the moment on the power of language. She holds out little hope that exploring what words can do will be of any great interest to her. This is because, as she likes to tell me, she is terrible at English.


So far this hasn’t stopped the two of us having long elaborate and sometimes painful conversations about growing up in my parked car, as we find a way through whatever it is in her life that currently preoccupies her – will her friends ever want to go on adventures, what will her life after school look like, what does it mean that her brother has gone to sea, what does fulfilment mean, and is she as clever as she sometimes feels or as stupid as her exam results tell her? The kinds of things that you were kind enough to talk through with me all those years ago, and that held me in good stead when you were gone.


Now of course I am grown up, or at least as grown up as you were when we talked about life on the darkened balcony of our beach house, with stars above and breaking waves below. Like me with my daughter, you never gave clear answers. But you were never afraid of my questions. And this meant such a lot to me.


In a way it seems silly that I am writing to you after such a long time. Although in another sense it seems remiss that, given how intimate you are to me, I haven’t kept in better contact. I could list straight away the things about my life I’m not terribly proud of, and that I feel you’d pick me up on. I am hopeless at keeping financial accounts! Why didn’t you push me on this more? And I often feel resentful in the kitchen in the hour before supper when I’m feeling tired and my family are squirrelled away doing something more pleasant than cooking or undoing the dishwasher.


I’m not sure why it comes to me now, but that afternoon you asked me, when I was nearing the end of schooldays, whether I would consider a future in the department store you were on the board of, I felt offended. How, I thought, could you think that I’d want to work in an airless building buying things that no-one really needed with just four weeks’ holiday a year? Looking back now I realise that you were testing the waters and that you were giving me the chance to consider a different kind of future. And not consigning me to a life of futile bulk buying.


I think I’m drawn to write to you now that thirty years have passed because my son, who you would also like, has just left on a long voyage. All the books that he was read aloud as a boy by his father led him to want something that he knew in his imagination was possible, yet barely dared hope for. And now he is doing the thing. He has stopped lying on his bed reading boat magazines and films on his phone and has found a ship that he wants to be on and that has a place for him. For my part I am wishing him well, all the while wishing that the tall ship he is on were thirty metres longer. As I imagine you, not a risk taker, would too.


My husband will soon be off on his own adventures. You would probably disapprove, but he has found that Italy speaks to him, and fosters his work, as deeply as a life at sea speaks to our son. And I am not stopping him. If he feels more European than Australian who am I to disagree? If his need to write undistracted is greater than anything else what can I do but respect this? He doesn’t go for that long, but it’s longer than a holiday and I have grown used to people’s reactions when they hear about his periods away.


This, my letter to you, is prompted by a deeper question which you wouldn’t have been able to answer but would have responded to. It’s a simple question. But stark too. When someone that I love goes away am I right to feel abandoned? The little girl in me, the bit that never grew up, just does feels abandoned whenever I’m left. It’s as if I’m powerless to feel otherwise. And yet even at the same time a more grown up part of me, the part that was good at English, understands that I can’t hang on to the people I love. I can’t stop them from wanting things that I can’t give them. I can’t shackle them to the spot in some eternal present, waiting for the next Christmas or for birthdays to come.


Besides I’ve also learnt, after many comings and goings, that when someone I love goes away a bit of space opens up that wasn’t there when they were around. Just enough space for me to start thinking about what else might be possible. There are, I now know, other people with whom I am happy. There are other people who need me – and not just my daughter. More than this, and this is harder to talk about, I have discovered that there are things I can only do when I’m not feeling quietly overwhelmed by the people I love most.


All those conversations in my parked car with my daughter brings me back to you. Just as when I talk with her, you didn’t have clear answers. And yet your comfort with my questions – my incessant why’s – always helped me through. I still don’t embrace change, any more than my daughter does. When our new neighbour sent a quote through yesterday, for a new fence between our gardens, all I could think of was the ivy and greenery that would be lost to her need for a cleaner division.


However over the years I have learned to bend rather than block. I have stopped trying to control my universe. I now accept something that you hinted at, which is that what we can bear is just as if not more important than anything we might want. And that bearing things well, without suffering them, is an art.


So here it is, my letter to you after all these years. Thank you for teaching me how to let go. And for showing me what words can do. And for being there. Hx



creative at home


I grew up assuming that I would, if not change the world, make a significant impact on it. I set my sights on making a difference, on mattering in the minds of others. Forever one step ahead my ambitions kept me on my toes, restless, never quite settling in the moment. Now and then I’d listen out for my small still voice, but only in time off from study or work. With each passing year it was my work and goals that gave my life structure and meaning, and that drove me on.


Then I had two children whom I wanted more than anything to be around for. My world tilted. I was in this world to help them come into awareness, not to change it through making a difference. While existentially this was the right decision, in that it chimed with something deep in me, it was also a tough decision which led to quite a lot of anxiety and impatience. What was I to do with myself all that time that I was around for my family? How would it be to put my ambitions on hold while I encouraged my children to develop theirs?


Being around for my children in an open-ended way lasted about five minutes. I soon discovered that I was incapable of being there for them, selfless and loving, for any length of time. Right from the start I wanted something back from the time that we spent together. And I didn’t just want it, I needed it.


I’d always drawn and read in my spare time. I’d always taken a sketchbook on holiday. And I’d always enjoyed making things – that childlike part of myself had always been there for me. However before I had children I’d grown unused to her company, and it took a while to coax her back into the light.


It wasn’t just awkwardness before the blank page that held me back. The put-upon housekeeper side of myself was another bar. It was too easy, on a Saturday afternoon, to set up the craft things for my children and then pull out the vacuum cleaner for myself. It was simpler – it generated less resistance – to keep up with what needed doing at home than to make room for the looser, softer, playful sides of myself which took longer to access than the duster and broom.


Giving myself permission to push on creatively, knowing I couldn’t justify it in terms of my worldly ambitions, turned out to be just as much of an obstacle to expressing my creativity as finding time to sketch and cook and play the piano. While finding time was half the battle, overcoming my reluctance to get out my pencils, or find secateurs and head outside in search of flowers, was the other half.


I still cleaned the house. I still got satisfaction from keeping on top of housekeeping. However being house proud wasn’t, I realised, the only thing that mattered. It was up to me to carve out time to be creative. If only because those days when I did, those afternoons when I had enough time to do something creative, I always felt better for it, and so more pleasant to be around.


Often I have to be a little stern with myself to suspend the ‘this drawing is rubbish’ voice in my head, the voice that doesn’t give a jot for self-expression or personal satisfaction. It may not seem like it, from a younger way of seeing things, however I now accept that it takes courage and not just time to put the world at bay – even at home there is a world – for long enough to knit or draw. When I’m in the middle of a drawing it takes courage to override the voice in my head that would rather I brought in the washing than sketch in the shadows around the pear that I’m colouring as evening draws in.

leaving home


He strides out in front, our dog trotting at his side. He doesn’t mean to leave me behind on the dark wet pavement. But his legs are longer than mine and he is in a hurry to get somewhere. Just as sixteen years ago he would screech his scooter to a halt on street corners, and wait for me to catch up, now he slows his pace until I join him.


I speak first. ‘I don’t like the fact that I won’t know how you are when you’re on the ship’. He says nothing. ‘We’d better cross now’, he says, and we cross the road before our dog lunges at another dog behind an upcoming fence. ‘Don’t worry’, he replies, as we stride down the hill. ‘I’ll be fine. You can always track the ship on the ship’s website. It shows exactly where the ship is’. ‘Sure,’ I reply, unconvinced. And I steer the conversation to all the things that he needs to do before leaving.


We round the corner and he pounds up the last hill, the gradient of which only a complete lack of urban planning could ever have permitted. He waits for me half way up, and then again near the top. Meanwhile our dog pulls with excitement at the prospect of another neighbour’s dog behind a white paling fence.


‘What will you do when I’m gone?’ he asks, as we turn towards our house, lit up by the moon from above. ‘I guess I’ll have more time to work, and to focus on other things. Besides Emma still needs my help. After that, well, after that I really don’t know. But I’m fine with that. I’ve never been able to see that far ahead’.


I walk into the front hall behind him. He unclips our dog’s harness, drops it on the rug and disappears into his bedroom. ‘Supper’s ready!’, I call out five minutes later, placing a heavy wooden board on the kitchen table to take a big pot of pasta. Emma trips down the stairs, the last night of her school holidays. My husband joins us with a small glass of wine, making appreciative noises at the sight of pasta. ‘Supper!’ I call again. The three of us sit down and I start ladling pasta into warm bowls. Putting down the ladle I shout down to him one last time. ‘This is the fourth time I’ve called you for supper!’ There is a rustle from his bedroom. ‘Actually’, he says, bounding up three stairs at once, ‘I think it’s the third’.


As we get to the bottom of our bowls there is the usual friction with my husband over second helpings. Alex stays out of it, his head in a sailing magazine. He looks up briefly. ‘Go for it’, he tells his father, waving his hand towards the pot and turning to me. ‘Don’t you want some zucchini?’ he asks. ‘Not really’, I reply. ‘Go on’, he says, ‘you have to. We’ve all had it’. I take the plate he hands me and obediently place the rounds of zucchini on to my plate.


My husband makes himself toast and cheese at the kitchen bench. While his back is turned Alex picks up the Parmesan cheese and pretends to lick the rind. ‘Don’t do that’, begs his father, looking round and falling for his son’s taunt. The moment his father’s back is turned he picks up the wooden board on which the Parmesan cheese and grater had sat during supper. He turns the board upside down and rubs it into his hair, flecks of cheese going into his hair and on to the table. His father is too busy buttering toast to notice. I roll my eyes and say nothing. His sister makes a disgusted noise, his father whips around, and we all laugh.


Alex has caught me crying enough times this past week to make a joke of it. ‘The last time…’ is his sing-song refrain whenever he catches me looking melancholy, pulling his long fingers over his face like a mime artist suggesting tears. Dropping out of teasing, he’ll add, ‘I’ll be fine’. And he’ll stand at arm’s distance and look straight into my eyes – or as straight as a 6 foot 2 young man can look into the eyes of his five foot ten mother.


After supper I join him in his bedroom. ‘But I am packing’, he says, bristling at my suggestion that he is wasting time on the internet. I take in his desk. Even if the wallet that he lost a few days ago was on it, I think to myself, it would be completely hidden by the bits of rope and crumpled receipts and apple cores and sailing magazines and tools from my father and university brochures and curling exercise books and sailing books and tags from wet weather gear and maritime certificates and old letters and the odd photo and general flotsam from a life well lived but badly organised.


I roll up a few tshirts and shove them down the side of the red sailing bag that he has insisted on borrowing from his sister. ‘Will you be taking your computer with you overseas next week?’ I ask. ‘I don’t think so’. I try again. ‘Would you like me to take your phone to be fixed while you’re on the voyage this week, so that it’s ready for you to take to Europe next week?’ ‘Don’t worry’, he replies, ‘I can still use the phone with earphones. Besides I won’t be making phone calls at sea. We’ll be in port every few weeks and I can get emails then’. ‘So’, I say, taking in the obvious, ‘you won’t be in touch a lot of the time?’ He picks up his biggest jumper and forces it into the top of his overstuffed bag. Whether in reply to me or not, I can’t tell, he says, ‘I’m looking forward to it’.


Looking away, he adds, ‘I’ll need to take the green sleeping bag in the morning. Do you know where it is? It gets quite hot below deck’.That’s it, I say to myself, getting up to fetch the green sleeping bag. He is ready. He wants to go to sea. He wants to be with other people who love what he loves and to be well away from home. I pull down the sleeping bag, plumped up in a pillow case, and shut the cupboard door in my study. For a moment I stand in darkness.


That’s all I need to know, I tell myself. He really will be fine, just as he keeps telling me. He doesn’t need me to stay in touch. If anything for the next little while he needs me not to stay in touch. He needs to be away long enough to let go of his memories of school. He needs to forget the university brochures on his desk and our funny family dinners. He needs to have the kinds of adventures that he’s dreamt of for so long and that life has been good enough to throw his way. And, I tell myself, I have to respect this. Just as my mother did when it was time for me to leave home.


Returning with the sleeping bag I look over at his bag of wet weather gear and wonder how its contents can possibly keep him warm in the Antarctic, should the Dutch ship take him that far south. But I say nothing. Instead I hug him quickly and tell him I’ll be switching off the internet in five minutes – and that he needs to get some sleep.


This morning I wake early. As I flick on the bathroom light there is a crack of light under the kitchen door and I can hear the familiar scrape of his spoon in a bowl of milky muesli. He is ready.


I drop him at the ship before sun up – for a voyage of nine days that ends eighteen hours before his flight leaves for a larger tall ship berthed in Amsterdam. In the car he tells me off twice for sitting too far forward in my seat. ‘Your arms need to be straight on the wheel. You do know that if you have a crash the airbag in that steering wheel would blow up in your face?’ ‘But,’ I reply, ‘my back feels so much better when I don’t sit right into the seat’. For a moment we sit in silence, waiting for the lights to go green. Like some weird déjà vu in that split second I remember telling off my mother, when I was a teenager, for not wearing her seatbelt properly.


I park the car near the ship, we say goodbye – he’d never kiss in public – and he hops out of the car to get his bags from the boot. As he walks towards the ship I notice how the two bags that he’d struggled to get through our front gate in one hand are swinging lightly on his back. Lights are on in the cabin of the ship. He waves to one of the crew and boards the ship without looking back.





what to cook and how to cook it


My mother never taught me how to cook – any more than her mother taught her. Luckily for most of my life it hasn’t mattered that I haven’t known how to cook. My friends, who I often cooked for, have always assumed I could cook quite well. My family, once I had one, did too. However I myself felt that I was winging it. I felt that I was making things up as I went along. Often I’d cook the same dishes, week in and out, mainly so as not to have to think too hard and also so that I could combine it with looking at facebook and making school lunches and keeping an eye on the washing.


Two months ago I bought a cookbook called ‘What To Cook And How To Cook It’ by Jane Hornby. The afternoon I bought it, a chunky Phaidon hardback, I returned home flushed with the certainty that it would cajole my family into cooking. The visual presentation was so appealing that I felt confident that if anything could overcome my family’s resistance to cooking it was this book.


But it didn’t catch on – since when was anyone cajoled into cooking? Instead the book sat lonely on the kitchen windowsill for a good month. When I reopened ‘What To Cook And How To Cook It’ I realised straightaway why I had bought it, and why it really was different from my other cookbooks. It was a cookbook for people, just like me, who had been winging it in the kitchen. For people who, for however long, had just assumed that they knew how to stir fry beef and make a chicken pie, even though they’d never been shown how to do it.


On the shelf in the pantry I have nine cookbooks, many of which explain step by step how to make a multitude of family dishes. Now and again I look at these books. However really I refer to them to confirm my hunches, or to adapt a recipe, and not to follow the writer’s instructions.


Because you see I am someone who doesn’t like to follow recipes, any more than I like being told what to do in general. I already know how to cook a perfectly good bolognese sauce, I’ll say to myself on flicking through a cookbook. Why on earth do I need to be told how? I’d never guess ingredients when baking, but I’ll hardly ever consult a cookbook when cooking the evening meal.


Until that is I opened ‘What To Cook And How To Cook It’ and spent time reading the photos. There is text as well, very clear text, but it’s the photos which are gripping. Alongside the standard list of ingredients, in order of their use in a dish, what I particularly like is the large photo of all the ingredients, with everything from two leeks, a rolling pin and a pinch of salt.


Using ‘What To Cook And How To Cook It’ has been as close to having my hand held in the kitchen as I’ve ever felt. With each dish Jane Hornby shows me how to cook it in a way I’ve secretly hoped I would one day be shown. It makes all the difference being shown what to do visually, rather than being told what to do via text. Step-by-step photos alongside easy-to-follow instructions has the effect of forcing me to slow down – changing my usual practice of throwing everything in the pan, leaving the kitchen for whatever reason, and hoping for the best.


Dish after dish that I cook from this book peels the scales from my eyes. Drop the grated parmesan into the food processor at the end of making pesto sauce, Jane Hornby suggests, before pulsing it lightly. Rather than, as was my old practice, plonking all the ingredients into the food processor and whizzing the sauce into a paste. Mix a paste of flour and water into casseroles at the end of cooking, she instructs, not earlier on in the piece. And make sure to leave a gap between the pie filling and the pastry so that the pastry can fluff up and not sink in the middle.


Having this cookbook on the windowsill in the kitchen is encouraging me to look forward to meals, rather than wishing them away. Above all it has done something magical. It has turned round my resentment at having no choice but to cook for my family into an opportunity to try something new. Not least dish after dish that I cook from this book gains me compliments. I’ve had compliments before, but not consistently like this. It probably helps that my son is about to go on a long voyage and my daughter is convalescing, both of which makes me feel that it’s worth cooking well.


And then the best thing of all happened. My daughter, who looks on cooking as an imposition akin to school homework, has twice suggested that she and I might cook something from ‘that book’. My daughter knows about my struggles in the kitchen. She knows all about it when I burn a pan dry. She knows that I cut corners when supper is late. She knows that sometimes I resent cooking for three near grown ups who could perfectly well cook for themselves. Knowing all this she has understandably held back from joining me at the chopping board. She’ll help when it suits her – she is a keen baker – but she won’t muck in. Who knows? Perhaps now, thanks to Jane Hornby, she will. And even if she doesn’t, just the fact that she would like to, that I’ve shown her that cooking doesn’t have to be a chore, is something to be glad of.





on not getting out of bed


‘Before having children we can believe that we are nice people. After having them it’s easy to understand how wars start’. Fay Weldon


The bedroom is peeping with light as I murmur good morning, open the curtains and switch on the fish tank filter. My daughter, who has been unwell and has grown used to sleeping in, grunts from her bed.


Apart from her recent illness my daughter is a teenager who is wired to ignore her alarm clock, which she shoots across the carpet in defiance of its infernal ticking. I meanwhile am a middle-aged writer who loves nothing more than getting going in the morning – to walk the dog, to use my mind while it’s fresh, and to get as far as possible from the demands of home.


However over the last few months, since my daughter has taken to refusing to get out of bed in the morning, I have learned not to stamp my foot at her bedroom door. I have learned, in the seconds before I speak, to doctor my tone so that frustration doesn’t colour my voice. Because over the last few months I have discovered an undeclared part of my daughter which lies in wait, like a snake, for the slightest whinge to enter my voice. ‘Got you!’ this undeclared part of her says whenever I resort to whingeing her out of her bed. Whenever this happens, as this morning it does, I immediately concede the point to her and leave the room. Meanwhile my husband, who wisely stays out of these early morning wrangles, calls out good-bye as he trips down the stairs in leather-soled shoes.


My mother would have none of what I regularly go through in my daughter’s bedroom in the morning. Too busy to negotiate or sympathise, my mother would shout from the bottom of the stairs until all four of her daughters were downstairs eating breakfast. But then again I felt slightly frightened of my mother, and knew when to fall into line. My daughter in contrast isn’t frightened of me. My daughter knows that I’ll go on loving her even if she messes up my morning by causing me to have the kind of yukky feelings that I haven’t felt since I was a teenager. My daughter knows, because I’ve told her, that when she grunts and protests, and looks like she could kick, that I feel a little frightened of her.


Not so long ago my son, two years older than his sister, went through a period of not wanting to go to school, of pulling the duvet over his head and willing the day away. However I don’t remember feeling as personally attacked by his refusal, as I do by his sister’s. My son would occasionally set off to school on his bike and return home twenty minutes later, when he knew I’d be gone for the day. But he wouldn’t downright refuse to get out of bed.


A minute passes as I stand impotently at my daughter’s bedroom door, running through possible moves in my head and nervously glancing at my watch. The advice of a child psychologist comes to me, something about forcing kids to school in their pyjamas, or leaving them at home to suffer the consequences. However neither of these seem appropriate for a teenager who has grown fond of her bed through illness, and who has lain in it long enough to elaborate her worst school fears.


I bite my lip in recognition that my impulse is to shake some sense into my daughter, to make her see how totally selfish her behaviour is – and also how much worse it would make things if I really did shake her. Then I back track over the hour-long conversation we had just yesterday morning, when exactly the same thing happened and at the end of which we came to the agreement that after five minutes I would pull off her duvet and that would be that. However this morning that discussion is as null, and my daughter is as troll-like as ever, streaks away from the pleasant young woman she is otherwise turning into.


I walk back down the stairs, feed the dog, check emails, listen to the news headlines – the fate of UK’s relation to Europe seems momentarily and gloriously more important than my daughter’s horrid mood upstairs. My grandfather’s clock, which sits on the kitchen bench, looks over at me. ‘You’, it tells me mockingly, ‘have been up for two hours already and you haven’t even found time to walk the dog’.


‘Are you up now?’ I call up the stairs, in as neutral a tone as I can muster. No answer. I try again. ‘Breakfast is ready!’ Once more there is no answer. Just the loud crunching of our dog eating pellets from her metal bowl in the next room.


‘Right’, I say to myself, gathering courage and taking the stairs two at a time. For some reason I don’t understand, as I scratch my daughter’s back and nuzzle her neck I call her by our dog’s name, not hers. Realising my error I laugh and continue to act as if she is our dog, turning her over to tickle her tummy in the way our dog adores. It works. My daughter laughs at the silliness – of mine and of hers. She lets me roll her out of bed to tickle her some more, and that is that.


Except that that is never quite that in family life. Tomorrow, or the morning after, my daughter and I will have the same tussle in her bedroom, as my husband calls out good-bye on shutting the front door behind him. Until, one morning, something invisible will snap, after which my daughter won’t return my greeting with a grunt from her bed. Even though it’s a school morning, one day she will just get up, get dressed, and get on with her life. Just as she used to and just as if none of this occurred. One day soon, once she’s confident of being able to make good things happen, all this will turn into a phase that she thankfully leaves well behind.


*     *     *


My daughter has been ill, you will say. Well, yes, she has been, quite ill. Besides it’s freezing outside, you will say. Absolutely, this winter has been particularly cold. However not wanting to get out of bed predates my daughter’s illness. Not wanting to get out of bed is expressive of her protest against the pressures of adolescence. Staying put in bed is her way of controlling her fear of the day ahead. Lying snug under the duvet allows her to let herself down ahead of time, thus preventing the disappointments that she feels certain will meet her during the course of her day. More specifically staying in bed means avoiding her own lack of confidence in her ability to shape the kind of day that she would like for herself. Not getting out of bed is to say, without having to find words for it, that since nothing good is likely to happen to her once she does get up, she might as well stay cosy and warm where she is.


My daughter doesn’t mean to attack me with her unwillingness to make the most of the life on offer to her. Moreover once she does finally get out of bed she always regrets her behaviour. She is sorry for causing me to lose my morning freedoms – working before breakfast in a café, walking the dog, an early yoga class. Once out of bed she always apologises. She understands that her inability to get out of bed directly impacts on me. Without saying anything, she is grateful that I stem my rage, that I don’t act on it. She is relieved that I don’t race down the stairs and slam the front door, as I might secretly like to do.


Of course I do do all these things in my head. In fantasy I stomp out of the house and never come back. In fantasy I pull her from the bed and force her to dress, one school sock at a time. In fantasy I tell her that she is a malingerer, not ill at all but rather milking me for sympathy in ever shorter supply.


When my mother was a teenager she was a boarder at boarding school, which means that quite she probably never had the chance to lie in bed on cold mornings, refusing to meet the demands of the world. This may explain why she used to take the ‘pull yourself together’ tack whenever I didn’t want to get out of bed when I was growing up – so very different from my own tack. But of course I am not my mother – besides which I have only one daughter and not four of them.


One day before too long my daughter will need to separate from me, just as her brother – currently away – has done. However as far as I have a philosophy of mothering it is that I would rather wait until my kids are ready to leave the nest, before pushing them out of it. Now that my daughter has found her way to the end of the branch, if I can wait until she’s confident of her wings, I feel sure that she’ll know when it’s time to fly off. If I can avoid stamping my feet in impatience, and wait till she’s ready to fly of her own accord, she’ll know the right moment to jump. And it’s this belief that holds me steady at her bedroom door on cold winter mornings like today.



pyjama button


The button on my blue pyjamas fell off months ago. Every so often I pull them on, do up the tie, and promise myself I’ll replace the button that day. ‘Today I’ll find a button and sew it on’, I tell myself. But I never do. For whatever complicated reason I’m unable to find five minutes in my day to find a button to sew back on my pyjamas. Which means that every time I pull them on, or hang them on the line to dry, I wish I had.


The American researcher Mihalyi Csikszentmilhayi has done decades of work into the psychology of ordinary experience. He and his team spoke with thousands of people – tracking them across their day. Roughly half to two thirds of their subjects’ day was given over to work. Another quarter was given over to leisure. The other quarter to a third was given over to maintenance activities – grooming, cooking, eating, housework, shopping and errands – to those things which, quite literally, keep our lives from falling apart.


In Csikszentmilhayi’s view, as in Sigmund Freud’s, much the work of life involves building it up – forging relationships, creating things, fulfilling aspirations. The rest of life involves shoring up what we’ve built up to prevent it from falling apart. Even a well-built house, left unrepaired, will eventually fall down. Even the most precious friendship, left untended, wilts. Even top athletes, after a month of illness, lose muscle mass. This is the natural way of things.


And yet rarely do we turn to each other and ask how we feel about keeping the wheels on our life. How do we feel about the hundreds of tiny efforts, from repairing a lamp to attending an exercise class, that maintains the life that we already have? How do we feel about caring for things which are necessary day to day, but which we don’t ultimately care about? I know I’m not the only one who struggles to do basic mending.


Sitting here now a whole list of small things that need doing in my life file through my mind. Things which, were I to do them, would make me feel lighter and more together, the master of my ship. The cracks that need filling in our sitting room wall, the legacy from major building work. The hem on a favourite pair of trousers that in fantasy will be mended by being pushed to the back of my drawer. The dog hair that daily thickens in my car. The address book that is so out of date as to be embarrassing. Am I really too busy to do such things? Am I waiting for permission – to be sent to my room until I promise to do them?


At school I was taught to look after my belongings – more for fear of losing them than to protect their inherent value. My twenties were such a scramble that the concept of maintenance was largely foreign. As I moved around London I passed a few things on and discarded others, but I don’t remember actively maintaining my belongings. By the time I embraced adulthood, in my thirties, my life was complicated in a way that made it hard to know where my belongings began and my children’s ended.


Around the time that I grasped my life wouldn’t last forever, I realised that however well I looked after my belongings, one day they too would fall apart. Unless I lost it, my jewellery would outlive me, which is why it remains precious. However my jeans, books, crockery and the kitchen extractor fan – all these would fray or obselesce.


In failing to sew the button back on my pyjamas, am I being realistic? Or am I caving in to the feeling that since everything is destined to fall apart anyway, that’s the point of stalling it? Does this, my residual reluctance, explain why the imaginative energy required to find a needle and thread is greater than the act of sewing on the button?


Now that the button is back on my pyjamas I can’t help wondering what all the fuss was about. But then my eye takes in the cracks in the living room wall – an hour at most up a ladder – and again I’m tripped up by a small yet insurmountable household task that will make the world of difference to me, yet go largely unnoticed by everyone else.


I end with a note from Freud. We are not, he wrote, responsible for the broad course of our lives. Many of the big choices – of family and to a large extent our personality – are not of our making. However we are, he noted, responsible for our satisfactions, for seeking out and fulfilling them as far as we are able.


For my own part, recognising that little things are worth doing even when they don’t count as achievements, even when there is no audience to reward me, has helped me to grow up and find satisfaction within, which is where it matters most.