HelenHayward

life writing

surrender

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Once upon a time my children put me on a pedestal, looking up adoringly – or so I like to remember. Today my teenagers eye me off in the kitchen, shoulder to my shoulder, a whiff of unspoken pity. Their pity springs less from knowing that, touch wood, they’ll be on the planet longer than me, than from a long-lost memory that once I was the founder of their universe, the moon above, whereas these days I’m just their mother.

 

What child doesn’t daydream of what their mother might have been had family life not clipped her wings? An opera singer? A fashion designer? A doctor abroad? A climate activist? A start-up queen? I know I once did. After growing up on a sheep farm, my mother was going to work for the Wool Board, championing natural fibres against the onslaught of artificial ones. She wasn’t going to work for charities, play golf, have her hair done and be at home for my sisters and me after school – which for years is exactly what she did.

 

I haven’t worked for charities. I’ve never played golf nor attended coffee mornings. However like my mother I’ve been around for my family. Not because I’m self-sacrificing. Ultimately I gave myself to my children, for as long as I have, because devoting myself to them – making them feel wanted, connected, solid – felt as good for me as it did for them. It gave me a lot back. I knew that loving my children unconditionally was to love them just the right amount, and that in surrendering to family life there’d be no sacrifice. I knew that I wasn’t giving anything up which wouldn’t be returned in kind.

 

Except that I didn’t always feel hopeful enough, secure enough, unanxious enough, to believe this. This was partly because my ambitions as a writer clashed with being there for my children. It meant squaring the circle, which for me was code for feeling stressed. Did I, I’d fret, love my children too much? Was I weakening their life force and robbing from my own? In doing my best for my children, in putting them first, was I failing to live up to the promise given me by my mother’s love?

 

Fed up of juggling work and family, and despite occasional fretting, eventually I surrendered to family life. There was no particular day on which I let go, succumbed. It just happened. Losing control in this way was scary. It went against everything my hard-won independence had taught me. Quite possibly I’d never have surrendered to family love if my daughter hadn’t upset the careful balance that I’d arrived at with my son. With just one child tugging at my trouser leg I could still focus on my work. With a child tugging at each leg I lost my balance. Their father was there for them too. However his work-life balance never went belly up. His surrender was never complete.

 

Even when we had chicken pox in the house I never stopped working. I always cared about ideas and writing. I always found time to sneak out of the house to write. And standing in line for the cash register at the supermarket, I certainly never thought that money didn’t matter.

 

In the end it wasn’t my work that carried me through, that made sense of the swirl that family life has been for me. Something else helped me stand firm. ‘The longer trees grow at first’, wrote Thoreau, ‘the stronger they are at the core. And’, he added, ‘I think the same is true of human beings’. With Thoreau at my side I felt hopeful that if I surrendered to family life my children would grow strong enough inside to one day let me go, at which point I’d be free.

 

Whatever fantasies my kids entertain about the woman I might have been had they not come along, I feel richer for spending a lot of time with them. And already it’s time for me to start letting them go. This is both a sad and glad thing. In letting them go, in letting them down nicely, with any luck they’ll be free to seek their own horizons. And while being a mother will always be central to me, I can now catch glimpses of my own horizon, which I trust I’ll be brave enough to surrender to.

doing publicity

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It wasn’t exactly a fib. I just didn’t respond to the sentence in my publicist’s email in which she asked whether I’d done live television before. Given that I’d already decided not to fly interstate for an eight-minute slot on breakfast television, I didn’t see the point of mentioning to her that I had a thing about cameras. Did she really need to know that I hadn’t felt the glare of television lights since I bent down to eat a donut dangling on a string on kids television, aged nine?

 

Radio I knew I could do. I’d done plenty of that for my last book. Television, I told myself, was just radio plus camera. Except, of course, that it isn’t.

 

I arrived at the television studio with time to spare. I’d already talked the questions through with the producer, who couldn’t have been nicer, the day before. I wouldn’t be able to go through makeup, he’d explained, since I was doing the segment remotely. However the lighting in the studio was kind, there would be someone in the studio with me, and all I had to do was look straight into the camera and respond to the questions coming through the earpiece.

 

Ella set me up with an earpiece, a glass of water, and a background shot of the harbour with Mountain Wellington behind. Then she went next door to test the sound levels. The studio was overwhelmingly black, not a little dusty, and for the next ten minutes, apart from news headlines crackling through my earpiece, all of them bad, I had just the round camera lens peering through black padding for company.

 

The buzzy earpiece didn’t seem to interest the producer in Melbourne, whose voice I didn’t recognise. He explained that the host who’d read my book had been called to the airport to cover a bomb threat on a flight. The new host hadn’t had a chance to see my book and I would be on air after the news bulletin in one minute’s time.

 

‘You’re definitely better on radio than on TV’, said my agent in a message on my phone that I listened to as I got my dog out of the car, fifteen minutes later. I called my agent back. ‘Yes’, I said, ‘I knew I wasn’t doing well when they cut me off after three minutes, and not the eight I’d expected. I could barely hear the questions for the buzzy earpiece, I had no idea who I was talking to, and my tongue felt like sausage in my mouth’.

 

That evening, when I should have headed up to bed, I watched the television clip which the publisher had posted on social media. ‘But I look like a hostage asking for ransom money!’ I wailed to my daughter who was half way up the stairs. ’Just don’t watch it’, she said sternly, tripping downstairs and clapping the computer shut on my fingers.

 

The last time I published a book I didn’t do podcasts. This time round I’ve done three and have enjoyed the form. Being invited to talk for an hour from my kitchen, knowing that any coughs and ramblings would be edited out later, felt far freer than being closeted in an airless radio studio with my allotted minutes counting down in digital orange numbers a metre from my face.

 

Although I had notes in front of me on giving interviews, mostly I would shut my eyes, listening out for what the interviewer was really asking – occasionally shocked by the intimacy of the question – all the while thinking ahead to a place I might take the conversation that might work for everyone who was listening. A bit like in a dance.

 

The interviews and launch are now behind me. Two moments stand out. One was looking over at the friend who helped launch my book, to see her holding a dog-eared copy, a pink highlighter running through various paragraphs. The other was when two women came up separately after the launch to tell me that they’d read my book in the bath – just as I’d fantasied a reader might.

 

This morning, after switching off the square red microphone button for the last time, I pulled the earphones off, put my earrings back on, wrapped a scarf round my neck, and headed back to the car where my dog was waiting impatiently for a walk. A voice message from my agent flashed on my phone. ‘You are definitely better on radio than on TV’, she said. ‘Well done.’ Leaving the phone in the car I headed across the park, clearheaded for the first time in a week.

 

 

 

Sunday afternoon

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‘Can we go sailing?’ his sister asks, her voice edging on petulance. It’s the fourth time she has asked since his return two weeks ago. He stares up at the dark sky and down at the wet courtyard. ‘Come on’, she says. ‘Okay’, he replies, ‘let’s go’. Within five minutes they are gone, with a quick dart back to collect a phone, disappearing in my car down to the boat that he has use of during his stay.

 

The dog yaps her surprise at being left in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. I feel it too but don’t yap. Instead I sit on the carpet, stroke the dog’s tummy, and wonder how to spend the next few hours. In my heart I thank my son for taking his sister out sailing, even knowing that it was premised on his leaving the next day. Picking up a rake I lose myself raking leaves which rise up like lava as I squish them into the already full compost bin. Then without a thought I clip the lead to our dog and drive down to the harbour for a walk along the waterfront.

 

There is only one boat on the water, with two white sails. At what point, I wonder, did my son learn to handle such a big boat? From a distance it looks like every other boat that sails on the river. Except that this afternoon it’s the only boat beneath a slate grey sky. For a smug moment I feel proud of having kids who are out on the water when everyone else is sensibly indoors.

 

A text buzzes on my phone. My husband, in reply to my message, is glad to hear that our kids are out on the water together. A blast of wind skuds across the water, leaving ripples in its wake. As I walk along with our dog, keeping my distance from fellow dog owners in case my dog lunges, I wallow in my unneccessariness. I am watching my kids sailing from the shore for my sake, not theirs. I am thinking about them knowing full well they are not thinking about me.

 

Another blast of wind comes through – a blast not a gust – forcing me to turn up the collar of my jacket and wish I had gloves. The only boat on the harbour lists to the right. I force myself to look away and resume my train of thought. It’s no good. The boat lists further to one side. My heart tightens into a horrible parental knot. I don’t like what I see yet can do nothing, not even a speck on the shore. Clutching my phone I have the distinct thought that even if my son were in trouble it would be someone else he would call, not me.

 

I stare out at the water, yanking our dog back from sniffing a rubbish bin. Are they in trouble? Even as I worry I know I am overreacting. Giving a yank to the lead I train my eyes on the only boat on the harbour, giving up any pretence of thinking my own thoughts. A sail comes down. Thank God for that.

 

Ditching my plan to do some writing in a café I make my way to the sailing club, leaving the dog in my husband’s car. The sun is low and it’s freezing. Wind whips under my rain jacket. The boat makes large sweeping tacks as I enter the marina, the gate left conveniently open. ‘Is that someone you know?’ asks a kindly looking sailor pushing a wheelbarrow. ‘Yes’, I say, ‘it’s my kids’. ‘Oh’, he says, giving it a moment’s thought. ‘I’m sure they’ll be alright’. Even though I know he is reassuring me I feel certain in this moment that they will be.

 

I know that I have to do this letting go thing, to make myself redundant in the knowledge that they’ll be fine without me. That their lives will go on no matter the longing that pulses through me, filling my eyes with tears.

 

I make out two figures on the boat, my son steering and my daughter on deck. Standing at the end of the marina, my daughter sees me waving and waves back. I head back to the mooring to help with the ropes as they motor the boat in. ‘Very successful’, says my son, jumping on to the pontoon and taking the rope from my hands. ‘Well done, everyone.’ My daughter’s face is flushed red, with cold or excitement I can’t tell. Whichever it is it makes her more sure-footed than usual, as she clambers round the boat pulling ropes and packing sails.

 

Standing on the pontoon once more I feel redundant. ‘Right then’, I say, ‘I’m heading home to start the fire and then supper’. ‘Great, I’m starving’, replies my son, not looking up from what he’s doing. ‘See you later,’ says my daughter, concentrating on tying a knot. As I head back to our dog, who will be wondering why she’s been left in my husband’s car, I quietly thank the world for this Sunday afternoon.

boat

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‘But I like odd socks’, he says, exasperated, when I hand over five odd socks from the wash. ‘I like knowing that all I have to do is find another sock and I’ll be right’. He looks over and grins. I smile back, squatting on the floor as he goes about packing for another voyage. His small bedroom, the room furthest from the main house and dampest by far, heaves with stuff. Tshirts that I’ve washed and folded he grabs with his large hand and stuffs down the side of his rucksack. Picking his way over the strewn floor like a goat he makes his way to the desk by the window and loses himself reading a pamphlet about the fjords in Chile, his last but one voyage.

 

These days my son needs me less and less. Though he does like it when I leave him cheese and pesto sandwiches in the fridge, and serve supper on time. He may want little from me – I have no idea what to give him on his birthday – yet still he refuses to let go of anything. The squares of thick leather on his desk. The metres of furled ropes in his room. The stacks of boat magazines. The broken boat in the driveway. The ragged tshirts. The odd socks.

 

Friends come for dinner, keen to hear about his adventures at sea. Initially reluctant to join us at the table the moment he appears he slips into an easy affability that he has developed as a deck hand on board a ship with fifty others for stretches of up to fifty days at sea. As we eat he sketches his seagoing life – shifts of four-hours-on, four-hours-off, losing touch with world events, fish guts at the equator crossing, possible voyages to come. When the inevitable question arises – ‘How long will you stay at sea?’ – he answers with practised ease. ‘I’ll do it’, he replies, ‘until I get sick of it’.

 

The young man who claims to be not very good at traveling, who left home for Europe nearly a year ago, has already sailed to four continents, including two trips to Antarctica. Yet this same young man doesn’t know what to do with himself after five days at home, unsettled by the sudden lack of routine in his day and mates to help him make sense of it. He is, by his own admission, more at home on board the ship than in the home he spent his adolescence in.

 

For all his exotic sounding voyages the trip my son most enjoyed he expected to enjoy least. Complaining of what he called ‘the plague’, he set off with three science students on a small boat in Chile, hiking up whichever mountain took their fancy from the fjord below. This trip, this sense of possibility, and these splendid landscapes had more impact on him than all the icy splendour of the Antarctic, with its prolific wildlife, whales a dime a dozen, and fears of losing passengers into ravines in the ice.

 

My son’s hands are rough and calloused, toughened by scouring the ship’s galley below deck and greasing the ropes above it. Yet for all his responsibilities on the ship he still manages to lose his wallet every time he goes out, diving back into his bedroom for ‘just one more look’. To be fair he does jump up to do the washing up after meals in a way he never did before he left home. And unlike the mane of hair that he forfeited on his first equator crossing these days he hair keeps his hair short, cutting it with blunt kitchen scissors in the bathroom.

 

At first I assume he is wasting time in his room, watching Netflix as of old. But no, he is looking up boats for sale, or texting friends in Europe. Now that he is on the edge of twenty he is careful with his hard earned money, converted from Euros and taxed at source. He refuses to repair his mountain bike, choosing to stick to his road bike. Disdainful or despairing of shopping I can’t tell, he returns from his one foray into town with not one but two parking tickets, along with two pairs of shorts and a pair of trousers.

 

After nearly a year away, two and a half weeks at home pass slowly. His friends are all busy and much of the time he seems at a loose end. I try to coax him out of it, but to no avail. He loves me, I know this, yet he doesn’t want to do things with me. He’d rather go up the mountain behind our house on his bike than walk on the mountain with me. Besides he has a lot on his mind. He is waiting for a text from the ship to find out when, even if, they next want him; an uncertainty that he wears like a thick cloak. Instead, at his suggestion, we play Monopoly, a game which stretches over two nights and that his sister narrowly wins. We also play Risk, a game I play so cluelessly that both he and his sister despair of having to play against me.

 

Finally the text he has been hoping for comes, releasing him from his long wait. He will not be stuck at home, moored without a boat forever. He will sail on a smaller vessel to Greenland, and after that who knows? Two friends are marrying in Norway in July, and he might join them there for that.

 

Yesterday, it seems, he was carving ‘BOAT’ into the side of an apple with his pen knife, anything rather than study for his looming final school exams. Today he is floating the idea of attending a friend’s wedding in Europe and sailing round Greenland over the northern summer. In the meantime in a few days he sets sail across the Pacific in a small yacht with a friend’s father and a crew found on the Internet. Not bad for someone who claims to be not very good at travelling.

rooftop

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I was in my late twenties by the time I got round to reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. It was the kind of book – like Tolstoy’s War and Peace – that were it not for its doorstop thickness I might have read already. Somehow it had never been the right time: never rainy enough, never sick enough, never curious enough. Until one September I began post-graduate study and went into therapy in the same month. My therapist lived in North London and I lived in South London, involving a long Tube trip twice a week, and it was during this commute that I picked up The Second Sex.

 

Reading Simone de Beauvoir’s book confirmed every misgiving I’d ever had about the pitfalls of domestic life. The timing of my reading, in the arc of my life, was impeccable. On the one hand I was entertaining the idea of having a baby. On the other I feared the snare that might drop on my head if I gave in to this wish. ‘Washing, ironing, sweeping out fluff from under wardrobes – all this halting of decay is also the denial of life; for time simultaneously creates and destroys, and only its negative aspect concerns the housekeeper’. It was hard enough keeping my life afloat even without a baby in the mix. What would it be like if I started a family and my ambitions were reduced to ferreting out fluff from under wardrobes?

 

Around this time I attended a friend’s wedding, thrown by her father and new stepmother. On arriving at the reception my friend’s stepmother opened the front door, greeted my partner and me, and immediately bent down to pick some confetti off the carpet. This was a tiny thing. Yet for me it captured why my slightly messy friend might be struggling to get on with her neat-loving stepmother.

 

At the time I felt critical of my friend’s stepmother, caring about confetti on the carpet when a marriage was happening around her. But the next day I realised that my criticism of my friend’s stepmother was really self criticism. Because I knew that, in terms of domestic affinities, I was closer to my friend’s stepmother than to my messy friend. I knew if ever I entered family life there was a high chance that I would join my friend’s stepmother and women like her in their preoccupation with Things That Don’t Matter. I knew that if I had a family of my own I may well spend my best energies, my most fertile years, in the business of eradicating mess, and so fail to create anything substantial to show for my time on this earth. I knew that if I joined the company of housekeepers, ‘who wage their furious war against dirt, blaming life itself for the rubbish all living growth entails’, there was a good chance that I would end up in the company of women who picked confetti off carpet at weddings.

 

*     *     *

 

It was a hot summer evening and my partner and I had met up with my mother and her friend in the French town of Uzes. My mother’s friend led gardening tours around Europe, and together they were doing a reconnaissance of gardens in the area. After catching up over drinks and dinner my partner and I went up to our room, where my partner fell into reading a novel. Too hot to sleep, I found my way on to the roof of the hotel, where the air was cooler and my thoughts could roam. Sipping a cup of tea I heard women’s voices on the adjoining roof. Only after a minute or two did I realise that my mother’s voice was one of them. It was another voice I heard – softer and more modulated – than the one I remembered from childhood. Then I heard the clink of a bottle in ice and, as I looked up, two plumes of cigarette smoke rose into the sky.

 

Sitting cross-legged on the rooftop, trying not to eavesdrop more than a few words, it struck me how happy my mother sounded. Now that she no longer had to care about a whole host of domestic things that had dictated much of her life as a mother, she sounded lighter, more playful. She sounded like someone else.

 

For thirty years my mother had put family and home first. However now that she had flown the nest and was experiencing life first hand she sounded quite different. Free of housekeeping, of shopping lists and baskets of wet washing and trips into town for new school shoes, she could speak her mind and let her voice sing.

 

Delving into myself I realised the magnitude of my mistake. For years I had claimed breezily that I didn’t want to turn into my mother, an assertion that was followed by a subsequent sweep of years during which I insisted that I didn’t want to have children. Sitting on the rooftop I realised that it wasn’t my mother any more than it was children that I didn’t want. It was the housekeeping that seemed to accompany family life that I was afraid of. It was Simone de Beauvoir’s maniacal dirt avenger who brandished her household schedule like a sword as if to ward off the meaningless of her existence.

 

I was shy of starting a family because I was afraid of taking on domestic responsibilities that would leave me stressed and harried, as my mother had often seemed when I was growing up. I was afraid that if I went on and had a baby with my partner that I’d end up caring about a host of domestic things which in my heart I didn’t give a damn about.

 

I already felt that I didn’t deal well with domestic stress. I often felt that I should be more on top of the day-to-day running of my life; that I should be doing something more important than whatever domestic task I happened to be doing; that I should be doing that task more quickly; that other people dealt with domesticity more easily than I did; that more of these tasks fell to me than to my partner simply because my resistance to doing them was slightly lower than his; and that the only thing worse than spending however many hours housekeeping each week was having to live in a dirty flat.

 

Sitting on that rooftop I had reason to worry. Even without a family to look after I cared about All The Wrong Things. I already did the washing up before going to bed after friends came round for dinner. I already scanned the household tips section of magazines. I already admired people with smoothly-running homes. I already knew that, in my mind, so-called trivial things had a way of becoming big powerful things.

 

As I sat into the night I wondered about my life to come. Would I, should my partner and I go on to have a child, pride myself in staying on top of housekeeping? Would I, like my messy friend’s stepmother, pick confetti off the carpet the second after shaking a guest’s hand? Would I, in identifying with a well-kept home, leave behind a misspent life?

 

Or was there another way? Was it possible to take on domestic responsibility for the well-being of loved ones without it leading to stress and strain? Might Simone de Beauvoir have been wrong? Might it be possible to run a lovely home without sacrificing my further ambitions? Looking around at the rooftops of Uzes, the house lights blinking off, it didn’t seem too much to ask.

 

goldfish

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I was listening to Mel Robbins give her TED talk on the five-second rule, rubber gloves on and freezer door hanging open. I had a metal spatula in one hand and was doing what every household expert says never to do – attack ice in the freezer with a metal object. ‘Why is it’, Mel Robbins was saying, as ice came out in pleasing chunks, ‘that we are unable to get ourselves to do the little things that would make such a difference to our lives?’ Yes, I wondered, why is that?

 

Less than a minute into the talk it struck me. ‘Damn it’, I thought. Not only had Mel Robbins launched an entire media career on the strength of a glitch in human nature. Even worse, she had nailed it. Thanks to her rule I was able to do something that I’d ordinarily avoid like the plague – defrost the freezer – simply by counting back from five to zero and opening the freezer door.

 

Repacking the contents of the freezer, labeling containers and diverting old food to compost, a small ziplock bag slipped through my fingers and fell to the floor. Next to my shoe was Eric, the goldfish I’d put in a plastic bag the weekend before after finding him dead in my daughter’s fish-tank while she was away.

 

Perfectly preserved in a ziplock bag Eric stared at me. This was the goldfish that had kept my daughter company from a corner of her bedroom for four years, his long swirling tail now curled into the corner of the bag. He had watched over my daughter through good times and bad, surviving his mate by a year, before awaiting his fate in the freezer.

 

When I brought up the idea of burying Eric in the garden, as with previous goldfish, my daughter shrugged. ‘He was old anyway’, she said flatly. ‘I knew he would die soon’. The moment she said this I felt sad. Because I knew that the younger more sentimental side of my daughter wasn’t listening. Given the pressure she felt under in her final year of school I knew that she couldn’t afford to be upset by the death of her goldfish.

 

As I picked up the compost bin to take it outside my hand slipped in, retrieved Eric the goldfish and put him back in the freezer, thinking quietly to myself that on the weekend I would use the five-second rule for his burial.

 

 

 

the holes in my husband’s study door

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A week ago our dog ripped out a claw playing soccer on the back lawn, requiring a trip to the vet. The vet bandaged her up and sent her home with three days’ worth of painkillers. When, while I was there, I mentioned our dog had gut issues, the vet suggested that I try wetting her dry food to ease her digestion. The next day the combined effect of the painkillers and wettened food weakened our dog’s muscles, causing her to wee and poo on the rug in my husband’s study. Luckily I was the first to smell the mess – late for the school run – and cleaned it up before my husband found it.

 

A few days later our dog wee’d and poo’d on my husband’s study rug a second time. I had just started working when a call came through from my husband, a stressy call in which we talked through the best way to clean up his carpet. Yesterday I got another call. This time I felt in two minds about answering. ‘Don’t worry’, he said. ‘It’s the dog again but I’m fine. I’m just calling to let off steam’.

 

On returning from my daughter’s sailing, later in the day, I noted the study door was closed and breathed a sigh of relief. An hour later my husband came in from tennis with the news that the lock in his study door had broken. Fired up from sailing my daughter headed down to the basement and returned with a few tools. She jiggled and poked the lock but to no avail. She returned to the basement and came back with a power drill and goggles. ‘This is going to be messy’, she said. ‘Don’t worry’, I replied. ‘It has to be done’.

 

Holding the drill firm my daughter cut a large square out of the wooden panel, allowing her to reach through the door to try the handle from the other side. ‘It’s no good’, she called. ‘The lock is broken on the inside’. This time she made a small rectangular cut around the lock, spraying wood as she went, watched by our dog from a safe distance. Then she pushed the whole square, with the lock inside it, on to the floor. As expected, our dog had made another mess on the rug, which I promptly cleaned up. Bringing the lock into the kitchen my daughter took it apart on the table, prising out the broken piece and putting it in a zip-lock bag with blackened fingers, and saying something about mending it with the school welder. Perhaps, I thought to myself, my daughter really can fix the broken lock. Or perhaps she can’t.

 

A week slips by, an eventful crushing school week during which there is no mention of the lock, safe in its zip-lock bag in the bottom of my daughter’s schoolbag. All week long I keep a wary eye on our dog who has clearly decided that it’s okay to relieve herself in my husband’s study, the door to which now can’t be shut.

 

A few years ago my husband would have jumped up and down at the annoyance of it all. A few years ago he would have sworn at our dog. A few years ago I would have tactlessly asked if the hundred-and-fifty year old lock in my husband’s study door had broken as he slammed the door shut. A few years ago my husband and I would have wrangled over what to do about his stained carpet, undeclared affect sticking to our every word. But actually for a whole week neither of us has mentioned the broken lock or the stained carpet or for that matter the holes in his study door. While this might suggest maturity, I rather think that it reflects our unspoken acceptance of the messiness of things.

playing cards

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There comes a point most evenings, supper over, when my teenage daughter can’t help herself. Too tired to take herself off to bed she directs one small insult after another in the direction of her father. None of her remarks are wrong – her father needs a haircut, he eats loudly, he taps his phone – and all of them hit the mark. Even though my husband mostly agrees with them my daughter will then apologise. Until, before a minute is up, another taunt pops out of her mouth.

 

Sitting at the table my daughter props herself up on one arm and refuses to go to bed. Not because she isn’t tired but because she is too tired to drag herself up the stairs. Besides the sooner she goes to bed the sooner she’ll have to get up the next morning and face the school day all over again.

 

‘Shall we play a game?’ I ask, wanting to move things on. ‘Good idea’, says my husband, ignoring my daughter’s automatic ‘No’. My husband likes to play cards at the kitchen table however my daughter likes us to keep our dog company next door which means sitting cross-legged on a rug on the floor. But first I grumble about having to do the washing up – our dishwasher hasn’t worked for five months and my husband and daughter know that by rights they should do it, and sometimes they do.

 

After cleaning up the kitchen I cut some fruit and break off a few squares of chocolate which I put on a plate to share with my husband and daughter on the rug next door. This is when the magic happens. As we pick up our cards my daughter’s taunts stop along with my kitchen grumbles. My husband slips his phone inside his jacket pocket. Our dog walks into the middle of our card game, puts up a paw for attention, and one of us gently pushes her aside. Then we squabble about who will go first, and the game begins.

 

The game we play most is Monopoly Deal, a card version of the famous board game complete with property, chance and community chest cards. My daughter, who is shrewd and quick, nearly always wins. She’ll play to the death, squeaking and pounding her fist on the floor if her plans go awry. My husband plays his cards close to his chest with all the zeal of a merchant banker. Meanwhile I just play – at times so stupidly that my daughter claps her head in amazement.

 

In my mind it doesn’t really matter what we play. What matters is that we play a game that allows us to drop our kitchen table defences for a while – the sparring that starts the second we sit opposite or next to each other at supper each night. The mask that defines and limits who we are in relation to each other, a dynamic far more powerful than I’d have imagined possible had I not experienced it during my own childhood with my parents and sisters.

 

Playing cards in the evening helps the three of us come to terms with the oddness of our life together. It also brings my son passingly into the room – the big brother who could never bear to let his younger sister win.

 

By the time we’ve finished a second round of Monopoly Deal the fact of school the next day can no longer be ignored. My daughter grabs the cards off my husband who, she claims, can’t shuffle properly. She puts the cards face down on the rug, moves her hands through them like dry ingredients, before bringing them together into a satisfying pile which sits on the mantle piece until our next game.

stay-at-home mother

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I was sitting at my desk at an hour I should have been in bed when I spied four words tucked into the blurb for my new book, a memoir of family life. Stay-at-home mother. What, I thought, staring at the tiny print of these four words on the pdf, does my publisher mean? Hasn’t she read my manuscript? How dare she describe me as a stay-at-home mother!

It was well after midnight by the time I’d composed my tactful response to the publisher. I pointed out how important work has always been to me, alongside family, and that in my mind I’ve always worked. My book, I explained, is about the conflict between personal ambition and devotion to family. I never meant to suggest that family is more important than work.

Even as I wrote my tactful email, worrying about the sleep I wasn’t having, I knew that I was more upset than I should be. I knew that the more reasonable my sentences the more hysterical I felt. I knew I was staving off the fear that I was being written off as a tracksuit wearing, play-dough making, healthy eating, mummy blogging, stay-at-home mother.

Next morning the publisher emailed back saying that she would take in my comments and send through a revised back cover. That night, still incensed, I mentioned the exchange to my teenage daughter as we sat on the couch kicking each other’s feet after a video. ‘But’, she said, ‘you are a stay-at-home mother’. ‘But’, I replied, petulant, ‘I’m never at home when you get home from school’. At which my daughter gave me her Don’t You Know Anything look. ‘Thanks a lot’, I said, thinking that her insult was the latest in a long line of comments unconsciously aimed at pulling me down so as to make separating from me easier. ‘I wouldn’t worry about it’, said my husband, turning off the television and aiming to console. ‘It’s just one of those terms that stick the more you fight them’.

I let it slide, but those four words didn’t go away. A week went by. Wondering what my manuscript was really about, this morning I sat in a café and read it through. Forcing myself to keep my pen in my bag, knowing that I’d make changes if I had it in my hand, I read on and on – past the time I should have left the café for Yoga. Embarrassed at how long I’d sat reading, I chatted to the waitress who told me some of her complicated feelings about being a single mother of a two-year-old. ‘There’s just so much judgment around motherhood’, she said. ‘Yes’, I agreed.

That’s when it came to me – as I took in the parking ticket on my windscreen and groaned inwardly. The opening paragraph of an earlier version of my manuscript – there have been many – sailed whole into my mind. It was a paragraph that I’d thought better of and deleted. It described my mother – who had four girls in six years – hissing her displeasure whenever the subject of working mothers came up. In her view working mothers – excluding those women who absolutely had to work – were selfish. Working mothers deserved what they got if their kids went off the rails further down the line. So intent was my mother in attacking working mothers that I vowed I’d never sacrifice myself to family in the way that I felt – as a teenager – she had.

Today the boot is on the other foot – mine. Today I am the one telling myself that I haven’t sacrificed myself to family, whatever my publisher and daughter tell me. Sure, I reassure myself, I’ve surrendered to family life. But that isn’t the same as sacrifice – something I couldn’t begin to understand on overhearing my mother hissing about working mothers as a teenager. But who am I kidding? The line between sacrifice and surrender is so fine that it blurs. I have let my kids take me for granted. I have dropped everything when the school nurse called. I have put my work on the back boiler during school holidays and illness. I have let my husband’s career gallop to the slow trot of my own. I have cooked more meals than would like to count, and paired more socks than I thought it possible to pair.

Walking round the city that I moved to with my family for quality of life reasons eight years ago it came to me why I’ve been so upset at being branded a stay-at-home mother. It’s something so obvious that I hadn’t seen it, hidden in plain sight.

The world has changed so much since I grew up that my mother’s hissing at working mothers has flipped into reverse. Now the hissing goes the other way. These days I am the one who is hissed at by my publisher and daughter for being a stay-at-home mother. These days the value of my life feels under attack by a label created by all the pent-up rage of an unrest at the heart of social life that, left unexpressed, takes the form of ongoing sniping between working and stay-at-home mothers. The more rational our arguments about motherhood, the more unconscious affect bleeds into them.

In my mother’s day working mothers were in the minority and stay-at-home mothers were the norm. Now the numbers go the other way. Spending time with your children is encouraged. Staying at home with them – suggestive of passivity and defence – is not. Self-declared stay-at-home mothers use their role as a badge of self-righteous abnegating honour, irritating the pants off the majority of women who embrace the real world juggle that is working motherhood.

What does it mean that one of the most powerful ways we can undermine each other as women is via the way we mother our children? Are we really so existentially insecure that we can only feel okay about ourselves by sticking pins into other women on the basis of the so-called choices they have made about how they look after their children? What does it mean that in surrendering myself to the demands of family I end up feeling humiliated by a taunt as scorching as the names gays and foreigners were once branded with? Once upon a time, a paid-up lecturer at The University of London, I taught Nathaniel Hawthorne. Now I have my very own scarlet letter – S.

Then I remember why I wrote this memoir. I wrote it not for the media to tie me to the stake of stay-at-home motherhood and dance a jig around it. I wrote about family life over a fifteen-year span in order to make sense of an experience that was bigger and far more interesting than anything I’d been led to expect. I wrote it for another woman, equally bewildered by the pace of family life, to read in the bath after a long day. I wrote it because until I’d written about family life I couldn’t write intelligently about anything else. And I wrote it for my god-daughter who I looked after as a toddler, who tells me that she wanders around London in her lunch break noticing the baby bumps of passing women, wondering if she’ll ever have a baby who makes her want to stay at home.

painting the kitchen

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I’ve wanted to change the look of our kitchen for years now, but the expense and time involved always put me off. Just the sight of my painting overalls, rolled up and pushed to the back of the wardrobe, was enough to dispel any fantasies left over from our last renovation. Until one day two weeks ago I borrowed a design magazine from our local library with a kitchen on the cover that I liked such a lot that it overcame my reluctance to pick up a paint brush ever again.

 

Daunted by the task of renovating a big old house, seven years ago, I painted all the rooms off white. I added some deeper tones to the woodwork but otherwise kept it simple. The month I finished decorating a friend came to stay. A week later a book arrived in the post, a thank you present from my friend. It was a coffee table book of English interiors published by a high-end paint company. Many a night I stayed up late lusting after the casual elegance of the rooms in this book. Yet I didn’t trust my fancies. Was I taken by the book’s clever photography? Its artful styling?

 

Even though I sensed my friend was hinting that my house could do with a bit more colour, I put the book aside. I’d look at it now and then in the same way that I flick through favourite cookbooks standing up. However I gave up the idea of transforming our house by painting the rooms interesting colours. Until that is the day I picked up the design magazine in the local library which had on the cover a kitchen I hadn’t known I’d always wanted. The whites and greys and unpainted wood chimed with me so deeply that I determined to turn round our kitchen in the two weeks of school holidays remaining.

 

Seven years ago my husband and I made up our renovation as we went along. For six weeks everything went well – we liked the same kind of things, this we felt was our strength. But then the stress of having to replace all the electrics followed by the roof and a chimney began to show. By this point I became so desperate for a working kitchen that I agreed to a kitchen bench the same length as our old galley kitchen in London. The new kitchen was installed in an afternoon and for all the months and years after that I regretted my haste.

 

Seven years on, older but probably not wiser, I decided to try out my ideas with a professional. A local architect, stressing it wasn’t his usual practice, agreed to a one-off consult. He arrived on time carrying a notebook and wearing a black tshirt and jeans. After chatting for an hour the architect told me that given that the kitchen is the most expensive room in the house, and given the Nordic look he felt I was aspiring to, it would perhaps be easiest to rip out our existing kitchen and to start again from scratch.

 

Disheartened at the cost estimated by the architect, and by the waste of throwing out a tired but functioning kitchen, I gave up my idea of renovating the kitchen, embarrassed by the hubris of thinking that I deserved better than what I already had.

 

Late that night I picked up the design magazine lying on the stairs, leafed idly through it to the kitchen I liked, and just like that my wish came back. At first I fought it. Renovating the kitchen was a first-world problem. Caring about the look of my kitchen was vanity. The gravity of world affairs made my desire for an attractive kitchen wanton. Was I destined to live my life caring about all the wrong things? Yet still I wanted it.

 

Opening up the magazine I put the page under the bright light of the kitchen hob and looked at it long and hard. Glancing up I took in the smattering of fat on the wall above the hob, the burnt bubbles in the grey linoleum top of the kitchen bench, and the tarnished fake brass knobs of the cupboards. Then I imagined a tall kitchen table, as high as our waist-high bench, with stools and an arc floor lamp reaching from the window to the middle of the table. At that moment, well past when I should have been in bed, I decided to renovate the kitchen myself.

 

Choosing a colour for the kitchen cupboards was only slightly harder than choosing a composite stone – there were hundreds to select from – for a new kitchen bench. (Though it wasn’t quite as hard as unrolling my painting clothes and getting out the paint brushes.) I liked so many of the colours in the coffee table paint book that choosing just one felt impossible. It wasn’t just choosing the shade that foxed me. It was wondering whether I really loved the colours I was staring at. Or was I secretly envying the lives of the people who lived in the rooms painted French Grey and Boston Green?

 

My daughter meanwhile was busy in the basement making a waist-high kitchen bench from floorboards and round fence posts – not exactly Nordic but inexpensive, striking and strong. During this process we had two blow ups, each time caused by my realisation that she was making the bench that she was able to make, and not the bench I fantasied having. Both times she only slowly forgave me.

 

Unable to find the blue grey shade I wanted for the kitchen cupboards on any commercial paint chart I cut a swatch from the English paint book and asked the man at our local paint shop to match it. However the duck egg turquoise colour he matched it to had neither the depth nor subtlety of the shade in the paint book – even after living with the colour for three days and wishing myself to like it. With that I put away the paint book and decided that just having clean white walls and a new kitchen bench and new knobs would be enough of a transformation.

 

Then came three days of painting – which might have been two if I’d been able to overcome my resistance to donning my painting clothes before 11am. Listening to my daughter’s Spotify song list, and intermittent podcasts of talks, I repainted the kitchen and pantry walls off white and the cupboards a cream colour. During this time my husband – who let me have my way in the kitchen – came and went, coming in for cheese and biscuits when I allowed him access to the fridge in the pantry, and avoiding the kitchen when he sensed my Cinderella-like seething at being trapped in the kitchen for hours on end with just a paint roller for company.

 

Too often I’d lose myself in the vortex of Trump journalism on the net, stunned at the rate at which world events outpaced the time it took to paint our kitchen and pantry. Or I’d spend a precious hour searching for an arching floor lamp, in turns lost in admiration for Scandinavian design and disgusted by the inexhaustible availability of the market and its disregard of environmental impact. Or I’d chase local joiners, none of whom seemed interested in remaking a single kitchen cupboard when plenty of other customers were keen to rip out their entire kitchen to install a new one.

 

Last night I took up the dust sheets, scraped the paint blobs off the floorboards and put the paint pots away. I looked around. It wasn’t my fantasy kitchen, and my lower back ached from moving a big ladder around. Yet I felt thrilled to have done what I’d wanted to do and had been blocked from doing for so long.

 

Half an hour later my husband, daughter and I flipped over the bench my daughter had made. The moment we righted it my daughter raced upstairs to her room in disappointment at the bench not being the way she’d imagined it. For a few minutes my husband and I stood in the kitchen, amazed at the way the new bench transformed the space that has been the stage for so much of our family life, struck by how much it would shape our life to come.

 

The kitchen bench is big and dominates the room. It is dark and shiny – not light and bare like the table of the kitchen on the cover of the magazine. And yet I love it. Not just because my daughter made it – for a fee I should add – from materials from the hardware store and tip shop. But because having a tall bench in the middle of the kitchen changes the room dramatically. Having a tall bench in the kitchen tells me that I really don’t know what is coming next, that I really am making life up as I go along, and that just when I think I know what I want something else – even better – comes along to surprise me.