HelenHayward

life writing

Month: November, 2012

making friends with facebook

Alex went to bed late, as usual. John my husband was in Canberra, having spent the afternoon stalking the halls of power – which he described on the phone as remarkably empty. Emma was in bed hours ago. I looked at the clock in the kitchen. Too late to start work, but too early for bed.

I’ll just check my updates, I thought, and then head up to bed. But facebook isn’t like that. Facebook doesn’t let me off after a few updates. No, I have to trawl through them all – including my own, which seem far too serious alongside the happy froth thrown off by friends. Facebook is about being chummy, I remind myself. It’s not about baring your soul.

I hunch in my chair at 30-degrees, in a mildly defeated posture. Or am I just tired? It’s hard to tell at this time of night. Perhaps, I say to myself, shifting around in my chair, perhaps I joined facebook too late. It might have been easier if I’d been younger – and so, I imagine, less set in my ways of being me.

For years close friends, just that much younger, struggled to explain the place of facebook in their lives. It’s for keeping up with friends, they’d say casually. But what do they mean by keeping up with friends? Is friendship, I wondered, some kind of race? Is there a baton that I might drop?

In many ways facebook suits me well. I like being able to send messages in my own time, and to keep in touch with friends who live four continents and two oceans away – about as far as away as it’s possible to live. I like composing messages, and sending photos that represent the things I’ve come to value. Above all I like feeling that we’re all in this thing called life together. And all from a corner of our kitchen, while my family sleeps upstairs.

But sometimes this way of connecting makes me lonely. In my heart I know that I’m not the only one who finds life difficult, and impossible to get right. And yet this isn’t the impression I get of friends’ lives on facebook. When I stare into the crystal ball of facebook I see the lives of my friends ticking happily away, bouncing from one ‘like’ to another, with never a look back. Of course I know this can’t be true. However late at night, slouched in front of the computer, I can’t entirely shrug this impression off.

Why, I ask myself, do I feel  I’m spying on friends when I check their pages? After all I’m not really snooping. Friends only put up things that they want their friends to see. They understand the need for privacy and only share what they want others to know. We’re all grown ups. So then why do I sometimes feel that I’m trespassing? Forever backstage at the opera?

Perhaps a deeper reason for my failure at facebook is this. I like feeling that my relationships are one-to-one, for my friendship to be special to the other person in some way. I’m not ultimately a group person. I can do groups – I taught for a long time – but they’re not my natural milieu. But I prefer my friendships to be particular. And I instinctively recoil from sharing them.

But of course on facebook everything is shared. Facebook = sharing. On facebook the invisible ties that make a friendship special are blown to the wind. Once you’ve made a connection on facebook, once you’ve accepted your role as a friend of Mary, everyone else who likes Mary is a potential friend. There’s an emotional democracy that gives everyone the same status. Well, not quite equal – there are inner circles – but near to it.

When I had my first child, one of the things that I found it hard to adjust to was my relative lack of freedom. Of course I knew that it would be hard to go out, especially at night, once I had a baby. But I didn’t mind. Because, I told myself, once the first five years were over I’d be able to pick up my life where I’d left off.

But I was wrong. Fifteen years on, I feel just as engaged with my children as teenagers as I did when they were toddlers. I feel no less bound up with them. And I’m no less tired in the evening – if anything more so, because they go to bed later. And yet I get so much back from them – everything really – that I mind far less than I thought I might before I had them.

I had no inkling, wide-eyed and pregnant, just how tiring family life would be. I had no idea how I’d feel, at the end of each day, after twelve hours of supporting my children emotionally, satisfying my own need to work, and keeping on top of housekeeping. I had no notion that going out in the evening might feel like just another thing to organise, prepare for – and pay for.

And yet I see none of this when I stare into the crystal ball of facebook – as I did late last night. I see no evidence of toil. Instead I see my friend’s lives in the rosy light that facebook throws off. I see their lives embellished with an integrity and solidity that mine seems to lack. I see friends getting about, embarking on adventures, and befriending people I’m unlikely ever to meet. I see them making it in the world in a way I fear I never might.

Being on facebook, for all its warm fuzziness, has brought home to me two uncomfortable facts. One is that I’m older than many of my friends, which is something I’d shielded myself from before I joined. Looking at friends’ updates makes me conscious that I’ll never be thirty and single again. I’ll never set off for a few months in Europe with no return address. Those days are over for me. Click, the gate has shut behind me.

I’ve also been struck by how many of my facebook friends are single. Of course I’d known this before I joined facebook. But I’d never been witness to how differently a day might pan out when you don’t have children to pin you to the school calendar.

‘Just look what I could be doing’, I tell myself, ‘if I weren’t tangled up with my family each day.’ But, even while I’m thinking this, I’m conscious of my error. I know that this envy says more about me than my apparently carefree friends. I know that each of us misses out, every single day, on things that we value yet understand we can’t have. And I also know that family love, and freedom, will never be aligned.

But it takes a while to win myself round to this way of thinking. My kneejerk response is to envy the possibilities that my single friends apparently enjoy. And to feel that they’re doing a better job, than I ever did, at packing a lot into their lives.

So why did I join facebook? After all no one put a gun to my head and said, ‘Now that you’ve turned 50 you’d better join facebook. I think that ultimately I joined facebook to test my confidence. I wanted to see how I’d fare in the wider world, beyond work and family. And facebook seemed – at least from the outside – to be a key to this. I joined facebook to convince myself that I wasn’t missing out – to prove to myself that my life is just as credible and interesting as the lives of others. And I also joined in the hope that it would spur me to relate to the world in a more direct way – now that the end of my most intense family years is in sight.

But I certainly didn’t join facebook to discover that everyone I know is younger, prettier, cleverer, better connected, and more widely travelled than myself. Nor did I join in order that, by 9pm, I’d feel beset by yet another demand on my shrinking pool of time.

Last night I finished my trawl through facebook on the site of a woman I’ve never met but admire – Megoracle. Meg is a beautiful and savvy young woman with a clutch of children who lives on a dairy farm in Tasmania’s northwest. A singer and writer, she combines worldliness and domesticity in a winning way. Her ‘Angry’ song about motherhood has had 40,000 hits. That’s a lot of angry mothers – nearly a fifth of Tasmania’s population..

Joining facebook showed me, in a fairly rude way, what I’d known all along. For the fifteen years I’d been focused on home and family, friend’s lives had been moving forward, by leaps and bounds, completely regardless of mine. Of course I’d known what they were up to – I hadn’t completely lost touch. But I hadn’t been faced with the bank of details that facebook so willingly floods me with. I’ve found stumbling on to these updates painful and oddly hurtful. My friends don’t need me, I’ll think to myself, they have no place for me – their lives are already so full.

‘What’s on your mind?’ This simple question, facebook’s standing invitation, still confounds me. It so friendly, so leading – and yet weirdly hypnotic. ‘For God’s sake’, I want to reply, ‘what business is that of yours?’ And who are all these people, I asked myself crossly, who are posting intimate comments on the pages of friends I thought I knew fairly well?

During this, my paranoid phase of facebook, I was convinced that life was passing me by. Life was elsewhere – at a beach in Queensland, at a daytrip to Antwerp, and at an all-night film event in Hobart. But definitely not in my house – however lovely – in South Hobart. ‘How can I possibly keep up with all this?’ I’d ask myself, slumped on my elbows before the screen – a pose not unlike the one my son adopts when reading his teachers’ emails.

Even if I’d joined facebook at its inception, I tell myself, I’d never have 280 friends. I’ll never be a facebook diva. I’ll never use multiple exclamation marks or seek hourly updates. It’s just not my style.

I’m still shy of facebook, but we’re now on better terms. I’ve found a place for it in the life that I’m living, and the woman I’ve become (although not late at night when I should be reading in bed). I love being able to see friends’ photos, and to know something of what’s going on in their lives when I’m not there. I’m glad they’re having a nice time when I’m not around. No longer do I feel like a wallflower, or actively excluded.

Facebook doesn’t make me happy, it’s not a window on to the world, and it isn’t a substitute for company. Nevertheless when I use it, in the right way I find it strangely satisfying.

H desk G

2,900 words

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Learning to fly

The only chink in my husband’s cultural armour is what he calls ‘a trip to Bunnings’. Six days a week he sits in his wooden temple in the garden, tapping out book after book – interrupted by the odd game of real tennis. Bar occasional work trips to Melbourne he can always be found there, rain or sun, writing, reading, taking notes, emailing, drinking coffee, staring into the vegetable garden, plotting to change the world – and increasingly succeeding.

About once a fortnight he comes up the back steps and says simply, ‘I’m off to Bunnings’. And then, ‘does anyone want to come with me?’ Bunnings isn’t our nearest hardware store, but it has a better selection of wood than our local one. This is important because when John isn’t in his temple, at the tennis club, playing with Emma, doing Suduko or on our bed reading, he’s in the basement – earmuffs on – making things out of wood. His regular trips to Bunnings are, for him, a vital necessity. Making things out of wood is what keeps him sane and makes him happy, no matter what else is happening in his life.

Our daughter Emma is more easily persuaded than our son Alex to join John in these trips. These days Alex has better things to do than go to Bunnings – surfing the net for a new bike under cover of ‘doing my homework’ is his current staple. Besides, Emma and John enjoy these trips. She’s young enough to be allowed to tease him, yet old enough to engage in conversation at the traffic lights.

Some subtle bribery is part of the mix. For Emma a trip to Bunnings is code for ‘and when we’re there, you can buy something small’. Luckily for John Emma isn’t a shopper. ‘Something small’,for Emma, might be a toilet plunger, a plug with a long chain, some balsa wood or – as in this last trip – a coil of bright orange nylon cord.

A thick rope hangs down from a birch tree in our back garden, directly over some paving stones. The handyman who helped us to renovate our house helped Alex to rig it up, now three years ago. Children, he said to me – as if in this area he knew best – need a few thrills.

For the last three years this thick length of rope has hung from an old birch tree, brushing my face as I duck by with a basket of washing, or a barrowful of leaves. From the hall upstairs I’ll see Emma swinging on it, dreaming up something to do. Or she’ll be tying one of her hand-nailed contraptions to it. Or she’s just hanging on it, perhaps imagining flying – a recurring fantasy of hers. Alex, more practically minded, might be trying in vain to hang a swing from it, or attaching his bike to it for a stunt I daren’t watch.

If our birch tree grew on the edge of a creek, it would be perfect for a splashed entry with  the aid of a rubber ring. But there is no creek in our back garden. Instead there are paving stones directly beneath, then a plant in a large wooden barrel, a small box hedge and then grass.

John and Emma return, a couple of hours later. Emma is triumphantly carrying a long coil of orange cord. Does she have a plan, I ask her tactfully, for her bright orange cord? No, not yet, she replies, in a slightly dismissive tone that suggests any possible use for her orange cord is beside the point.

In no time she has attached one end of her orange cord to the rope hanging from the birch tree, creating a continuous cable to the other end of the garden. After much banging in the basement a badly nailed open cable car soon appears, which she hangs from four hooks to the orange cable.

The following day, within hours of Alex’s return from a mountain-biking camp, full of fit energy, the cable car is broken. ‘It was an accident’, is Alex’s only explanation. For the next couple of weeks the orange cord, now lonely and no less orange, spans the garden – like an abandoned modernist artwork.

Now that Alex and Emma are teenagers, I find it harder to lure them out of the house and into the garden. Especially after school. Hunger, weariness, the Internet, and curmudgeonly homework all conspire to keep them indoors. But lately, with daylight saving and warmer evenings, the garden has tempted them out again.

Late on Tuesday afternoon I’m down in the vegetable garden, shoveling a layer of compost on top of the layer of straw that I’d put out the day before. Bother, I think to myself, really I should be putting the straw on top of the compost. John yells his goodbyes from the back door, off to a work dinner. Emma squeals with delight at some game with the rope, interrupted by Alex’s manly whoop.

Evening will soon fall and supper demands my presence in the kitchen. I can hear Alex and Emma’s game reaching tipping point. But I don’t intervene. There are some things they have to work out for themselves, I say to myself, purposely keeping my head down gardening.

Following a moment of quiet, I hear the soft thud of Alex’s footsteps in the grass. ‘Emma has fallen’, he said. ‘I think she’s alright’.

Two weeks ago I tore a tendon in my knee bushwalking. Completely forgetting this I take off in a sprint. As I race over the grass I pray that Emma really is alright. So many near shaves over the years, so many ‘what ifs?’ – and yet somehow we’ve always come through.

But Emma isn’t alright. There is grass in her mouth and she’s moaning softly, crying. She begs me not to touch her. I have that sick mother feeling. I have no idea what I should do. I crouch down and take the grass out of her mouth. Do I move her? Not move her? Keep her talking?

‘Can you wiggle your toes?’ I ask. Emma wiggles the toes of one foot through her sandal. ‘Your fingers?’ Yes. Okay, I think to myself, she’s not completely broken. She may look like a ragdoll on the grass but her spine seems to be intact.

Alex stands by, moving from one foot to the other. ‘She just flew off the rope’, he is saying, as if in a voiceover. And then, after a pause, ‘I don’t really know how it happened’.

Oh my God, I say to myself. Please let her be alright. More minutes pass. She moves her bottom, and then her arm. I feel a rush of relief and gratitude.

After fifteen minutes that feel like an hour we get her up off the grass and hobble her inside, where she lies ashen on the sofa. She’s still crying, still in shock, still trembling. At least, I think to myself, she can tremble.

Holding her bunny and listening to a Postman Pat story doesn’t help. It isn’t just shock. And so it’s another hobble to the car and a trip to Emergency – straight past the restaurant where John is in the middle of his work dinner. Alex stays behind – ‘to do my homework’.

At the hospital – the private hospital across the road from the public hospital – the staff is calm and warm. Emma stops shaking. A nurse undresses her, puts her in a gown in a bed, and hooks her up to three monitors. We attempt a fumbling explanation. Something about swinging from a rope in the garden, receiving a tug on the rope from her brother, then letting go of the rope and flying through the air before coming down on her legs and tummy face down on the grass.

After a brief consultation, just long enough for them to decide that Emma can wait, a curtain is pulled around her bed. On the CCT screen I watch a woman being admitted in the bed next to Emma’s, clearly losing a lot of blood and causing staff to sprint around the ward, consulting with each other in hushed energetic tones.

Emma and I soon tire of watching her monitor – heartbeat, blood pressure, and oxygen. So we play hangman in the back of my diary. My word is November. Hers is light, which she’s staring at above her bed. And then we just wait.

The doctor, wearing casual clothes and runners, checks Emma, tests her urine and, after more waiting, decides not to xray. He asks her to stay another hour, just to be sure. When they finally discharge us it’s late, complete with an envelope of painkillers and a sick note for school – and the doctor’s warning that she’ll feel much worse in the morning.

Alex is eating peanut butter on toast, not doing his homework, when we get back. The house is exactly as we’d left it, except that the windows are all black. I help Emma on to the sofa and make a thrown-together supper – we’re all starving.

Undoing the dishwasher with Alex, I suggest that he needs to take more responsibility when he and Emma are playing. And yet even as I speak I can’t help feeling that – like hounding him to do homework – he isn’t really taking my words in.

Back from his dinner, John is full of concern and love, taking the stairs up to Emma’s bedroom two by two. Just as John’s footsteps reach overhead, Alex turns to me, his arms full of plates, and murmurs that he can’t really imagine life without Emma. ‘Neither can I’, I reply, not wanting to add anything.

As I listen back in my head to what Alex has just said, it strikes me that he has understood. And it’s his use of the word ‘really’ – ‘I couldn’t really imagine life without Emma’ – that gives him away.

All the next day – yesterday – Emma lies in her bed, listening to an audio book, moaning every time she turns. By late afternoon she’s berating John for falling asleep while reading to her. Down in the kitchen, preparing supper, I feel overwhelmingly thankful that yet again we’ve been let off the hook. And also cross at myself that, by late evening, all I can think about is whether Emma will need another day off school.

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on wasting my intellectual life on my children

I’m sitting in an auditorium on Hobart’s waterfront listening to a debate on ‘Women in Power’. The Tasmanian Premier Lara Giddings has ditched her prepared speech and is speaking off the cuff. Young children these days, she tells a packed audience, are very fortunate. They aren’t handicapped, as children were in the past, by having a traditional mother at home who makes them feel guilty for all that she’s given up for them. ‘I have a number of working mothers in my Cabinet’, the Premier says, sweeping her arm to one side as if they might be standing beside her. And she speaks in a tone that suggests that, like global warming, the debate is now over.

 

Seated in the audience I feel at once naïve and middle aged. Tonight’s debate started at 6.30pm – a hellish hour for a mother of schoolchildren to be anywhere other than home. Just to arrive on time I’d cooked supper ahead, and generally squashed two hours of housekeeping into one. Hang on, I thought with a jolt, peeling off my jacket after running from my car. According to the Premier’s description I am a traditional mother. I sat there for a bit, sweating and pondering. Does this mean, I asked myself, that as my children move through their teens I’ll be making them feel guilty for my supposed overinvestment in them?

 

For the split second that followed Lara Giddings’s off-the-cuff comments (aged 39, no children), I was my mother. Had I wasted my best years looking after my children? Writing a PhD, publishing a book, being an ex-university lecturer and psychotherapist – none of these seemed to count. To all intents and government purposes I was a traditional mother who had wasted her intellectual dowry on her children. I may currently be working in magazines, but my friends and family know that this is just a cover. Writing and editing may keep me up late at night, but everyone knows that my real job is my family. Why else would I be living in Hobart and ironing my husband’s shirts?

 

Of course this is my ambivalence speaking, a tone that, in my mother’s day, was hushed up and assuaged by the odd cigarette. However my mother belonged to a moral majority of mothers who put their families first, and felt validated for doing so. Whereas I belong to a silent minority of mothers who feel split between common views about motherhood (like those of Lara Giddings’) and their private beliefs (such as children thrive on a mother’s devotion). With the result that, at least in public, I cover up the fact that I put my children first.

 

Over the years I’ve learnt how to dodge curly ‘and what do you do?’ question. I know that in most social situations it’s the work that I do which makes me interesting to others, and not the mother that I always am. For years, on leaving parties early, to get back to the babysitter, I’d stare through the car’s windscreen and ask myself this question. Is devoting myself to my family some kind of mistake that I’ve made? Like losing my bankcard, or marrying the wrong man? And then I’d get home, chat to the babysitter, check on my children asleep in their beds, and know that it wasn’t.

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