HelenHayward

life writing

Month: December, 2012

Sleepovers

 

Xmas

The woman over the road had invited me in for a Christmas drink, along with a clutch of other neighbours. Having recently moved into the area I was keen to be friendly. And, with any luck, charming.

The men and women had divided between the lounge and kitchen before I arrived. Perching on a sofa I introduced myself to three women who were chatting about their children. I felt drawn to one of these women, a slightly haughty woman with startling red shoes.

As I entered the conversation she was telling the two other women that she’d barely seen her 13-year-old daughter for days. ‘As soon as school ended she got out her sleeping bag and had two sleepovers with different friends, and then went straight off for a tennis coaching weekend!’ The women laughed and nodded, as they took some smoked salmon on toast, offered by my neighbour’s mother.

‘I’m not such a fan of sleepovers’, I said, without thinking. The laughing stopped. The three women turned to me. ‘I mean’, I continued, regretting my admission, but pushing ahead. ‘I think it’s a really intimate thing to go to sleep in a room with someone you don’t know very well – and even more so when a whole group of friends is in the room together’. Still more silence. ‘And so often my children arrive home the next morning with rings under their eyes and then take two days to recover’.

‘But’, said the woman with the red shoes, ‘it’s so important for them to experience this kind of thing. And a bit of lost sleep doesn’t really matter’. And the other two women nodded their agreement.

‘So much for being charming’, I thought to myself, wishing I hadn’t said anything. But I had. Within six minutes I’d blown it as a savvy new neighbour. I was nothing more than a protective mother who likes nothing more than curtailing her children’s freedom. A mother who would rather have her children at home with her than have them sleep on someone else’s floor, and learn about life. A mother who isn’t wearing the sexy shoes that her husband would kill for her to wear – and not because I’m against them but for fear of the foot surgeon’s knife.

The conversation rumbles forward and I hold my tongue, feeling outnumbered. The woman in the sexy shoes mentions, in passing, that she is a child psychiatrist, telling me in code that if anyone knows how to understand children, it’s her.

‘What does it matter if they see a few adult films?’ she continues, looking across at me. I stay silent. ‘Don’t you think?’ she persists. Given that I’ve already blown it, I decide to respond. ‘Well, no. Actually I do think it matters if kids see adult films before they’re ready for them. Anyway, what are we really talking about here? For me, it’s not just violent films. For me the bottom line is this’, and I take a deep breath. ‘Basically I don’t want my kids to see other people having sex before they’ve had it themselves. It don’t want them watch other people doing something that they have no experience of. So, yeh’, I finished, ‘I do think it matters if they watch adult-rated films’.

The woman with sexy shoes frowns. The other women wait for her to reply. ‘Oh my God’, I think to myself. This was only meant to be Christmas drinks, a gesture of goodwill towards the people I meet wheeling their bins out on the same night of the week. Nothing more. And here I am sounding like a Christian Fundamentalist.

‘I see. Yes, it is a tricky topic’, the woman with the red shoes says after a pause, weighing her words, making me feel more like one of her psychiatric patients, than a woman of the world like herself.

And so I take the easy way out. We change the subject. I tell her about my background in pyschotherapy in London, some of which involved working in psychiatry, and she in turn describes to me her role at the hospital. The more we talk the more we stand on even ground, and the more comfortably we both speak. The other two women take the conversation off on their own tangent, and we relax back into four neighbours chatting on adjacent sofas.

An hour later I leave the party, and cross back over the road. My children are engrossed in watching a Top Gear DVD, waiting like baby birds for me to cook them supper. ‘Hi’, they call out. My husband waves a short wave as I pass his study door. ‘How was it?’ he asks. ‘It was really quite nice’, I say, passing down to the kitchen, ‘you should have come’.

my husband is a writer

When the fact that my husband is a writer comes up socially I often get an keen response. ‘Oh really’, they’ll say, ‘you must have such interesting conversations. You must get to talk about all kinds of things’. And they’ll give me a vaguely envious look.

‘Hah’, I’ll think to myself, not wanting to disappoint. I feel reluctant to tell them that being a writer’s wife is not the same as being a writer’s girlfriend. I am not my husband’s muse, thanked on the dedication page of his every book. Tormenter, perhaps. Companion, at times. But muse, definitely not.

Right now, as I write this, my husband is playing tennis against my daughter – who has begged me to stay and watch. Within the frame of the court my husband looks entirely convincing. His line calls are melodic, his encouragement of our daughter is gracious. None of it hints at the turmoil of his morning, largely spent looking, not at a blank screen, but for his next move on Internet chess.

You might think that, after a few successful titles, you’d relax into a demanding but not overly taxing subject for your next book. Rather than – the subject my husband has decided to tackle – the meaning of existence.

If my husband and I get around to talking freely, it’s lying in bed on Sunday morning. It’s only then that we really open up, as opposed to sharing notes about our day or making plans or generally keeping family life afloat. But not right now. Not when he’s struggling in the middle of a book that he doesn’t feel in control of. Right now he’s out of bed in a winkle, leaving just a warm crease in the sheets.

In my mind my husband is writing his Nietzsche book. This is my shorthand way of conveying to myself that although I don’t exactly know what his current book is about, it’s clearly something that he is committed to and, in an ultimate sense, has to write.

If I went down to the bottom of our garden now – where my husband has his study – and asked how his writing is going, he might fob me off with ‘Fine’. But then, if I made the mistake of making a follow up question, he’d start groaning and shrugging, as if couldn’t possibly understand, even if he trusted me enough to tell me – and wishing me away with his eyes.

And so I don’t go down to the bottom of the garden when my husband is working. I’ve learnt not to. I’ve learnt that when he is in this state – through which he goes for every book he’s written – there’s nothing that I can do to help. Except, perhaps, to take him food on a tray. He likes that at any time. Discouraging the children from riding their bikes up and down the garden, he also appreciates. Christmas doesn’t seem to help. Asking him to make a decision on anything other than his own work is also futile.

My husband’s ideal day is to rise at 6, start writing before the rest of us rouse, make coffee at 7, and then work through uninterrupted until midday. Then a break for lunch, followed by a game of tennis and more work until supper. And to do exactly the same for five days in a row.

As I say, I don’t know what my husband’s current book is about – although, since he’s a philosopher, it’s unlikely to be a thriller. I just accept that as his wife of fifteen years I’ll never be its ideal reader. Thankfully my husband has plenty of ideal readers – many of whom go to the trouble of writing to thank him. I find this consoling. This, I tell myself, is what good writing is for. It’s to touch people in ways that didn’t know they wanted to be touched, and to introduce them to ideas they didn’t realise were on their minds.

Last night we had drinks with a friend of mine whose husband she wanted us to meet. My husband was pleased at the invitation, not least because we live in a small city with only a handful of full-time writers. Besides, I told my husband, my friend’s husband works in a caravan in the bottom of the garden – when he’s not at the family shack further down the coast.

Two days ago my friend’s husband completed the draft of his current book – which immediately made my husband’s ears prick up. But it was the subject of his new book that really made my husband distinctly envious – the history of the doctrine of Original Sin.

Whereas I rolled my eyes inside my head at the thought of writing a book on such a thorny subject, my husband took it in his stride. ‘It would be so easy’, my husband said to me before bed last night. ‘All you’d have to do is take seven concepts, all rooted in history. And then, by the time you’d finished describing these, the book would be almost written’. Perhaps, I thought to myself, rolling on to my side, the two of them should collaborate.

john

making things at home

Once I sat down with a pencil, paper, and school calendar, and worked how many days my children weren’t at school, I knew I had to do something. School camp was out, because I wanted my children to be able to relax and hang out at home. Full-time childcare was out, because I never earned enough to cover it.

Instead I took a deep breath and told myself that being at home was an opportunity for us all to be creative. This was my small seed. I figured that if they had things they genuinely enjoyed doing, and felt real pride and interest in, this would be good for us all. I wouldn’t be obliged to entertain and stimulate them, and they wouldn’t have to moon about the house wondering what to do next.

The seed, my hunch, was incredibly simple. What if, instead of feeling trapped at home with my children, the glum feminist fable, I found genuine opportunity there? What if being at home with Alex and Emma gave me a chance to do things that, previously, I hadn’t given myself imaginative permission to do? What if they grew up alongside a mother for whom it was completely normal to draw and craft and generally make things at home? Wouldn’t this make us free in some deep sense? We’d still need the world and other people, of course. But we wouldn’t need external proof that our day had been worthwhile. Making things at home would be our own reward.

It all began in the kitchen, when Alex and Emma hung around while I cooked. I wasn’t playing with them, nor was about to. My attention wasn’t on them. And yet I sensed it was important for them that I was around. Instead of looking beseechingly at me with a ‘What shall I do now?’ look, Alex would pick up whatever was to hand, start playing with it, and then wander off in search of that vital thing he needed to make his game more interesting. Emma, on the other hand, might start a drawing, lose herself in it for five minutes, only to then tear it up and get cross. However if I didn’t come to her aid – by being too busy or thinking better of it – she might distract herself. She might pick up her ripped up drawing and start making a house for her pencil sharpener with paper and sticky tape – as if the pencil sharpener’s existence depended on it having such a home.

Every time they turned the ‘What shall I do now?’ question round – by asking themselves rather than me what they should do next – they became just a tiny bit stronger. And there was another thing – easier to describe the effect of than the process of. Immersed in things they liked doing, they got a clearer sense of who they were. Some sort of release occurred that, over time, helped shaped their personality. If I have taught my children anything, I hope it’s that something good often comes out of doing nothing.

Giving Alex and Emma unmapped time has been just as important, for me, as making sure they eat and sleep well. And, as they’ve grown up, I’ve protected it like a mother tiger. Loose time, down time, unstructured time. This, I tell them, in as close to bossy as I get, is what weekends are for. Finding something to do, when nothing is on offer, is, I believe, a vital life skill. And like any skill, it requires practice.

It’s not just that being able to find things to do liberates my children from me. There’s also this other thing, gleaned from my psychotherapy days. Which is that when it looks like they’re not doing much, they’re actually digesting everything that happens in the busier parts of their lives – much like dreaming at night. Simple really. And yet, like many simple things, easily overlooked.

It was my son Alex who taught me, in so many ways, about hobbies. His passion for making things, which grew out of his love of playing with toys, started young. As for many small boys, it started with trains. For a long time it was his passion for trains that framed his interest in the world. As he grew up it wasn’t just trains that absorbed him, it was the whole world of trains. It was books from the transport section of the library, Thomas the Tank Engine videos, and big pencil drawings of fantasy track layouts. Not least it was the catastrophic crashes that he dreamed up for his wooden engines. Everything that related to trains was of interest to him (one of the biggest mysteries he encountered, on growing up, was the fact that this passion wasn’t universally shared).

There was no mystery about getting my children to be creative. The only real challenge has been keeping them that way. What they needed in order to be creative was, then, more straightforward than what they’ve needed to keep them that way. Top of the list they needed quality materials with which to work – because making things is a kind of work and it’s important to have materials that are a joy to use. Secondly they needed the right sort of surroundings – warm and inviting but not too set up or school-like. Thirdly they needed to feel relaxed and unhurried – rather than feeling that a further commitment was about to force them to break off. Fourthly they needed the right kind of encouragement, helpful but not too helpful, available but not hovering. And lastly once they’ve done, they needed to feel pleased with their efforts, that their work was worthwhile.

If all these needs are satisfied, nearly every child will be creative. Not necessarily in the way we’d like them to be creative, but creative in their own way. I always know when my daughter is being creative, because she goes quiet and her tongue breaks through her lips.

Image

flourishing food

Food is supposed to be the easy bit. Everyone likes good food. And children love to eat. So why is it that getting children to eat well, to prefer to eat well, is no longer a simple project? It may sound simple on paper – especially in shiny recipe books – but in the kitchen it’s another matter. In the kitchen a previously jolly Emma can shrink in a matter of seconds to a myopic preoccupation with the fat that marbles the meat on her plate. While her brother Alex will be quietly licking the olive oil from his plate where a mound of broccoli was.

It doesn’t matter if you are Jamie Oliver himself, every child exercises power in the kitchen by eating fussily. I discovered this early on, years before I considered having a child. I’d gone to have lunch with an old friend, who was in the garden when I arrived. Her son Toby was busy with a tip-truck, shovelling lawn clippings into the back of the truck and moving them about the garden in a happy busy way. Carolyn was on her knees planting.

As we went inside to set the table for lunch, Carolyn said something that gave me a start. ‘Sometimes, she said, stirring soup on the hob, ‘I’ll get so tense just before Toby’s supper time, that I’ll have a quick whisky to calm me down’. I glanced across at her, looking nearly as surprised as I felt. ‘You know’, she went on, ‘some days he’ll take an hour to eat his supper. Or he won’t touch it at all, even when it’s as simple as a boiled egg and soldiers’. And she rolled her eyes and laughed, intimating that – without a child myself – I couldn’t possibly imagine the scene she described.

Small children are exquisitely adept at pushing their mother’s buttons in the kitchen. They know, without having to say anything, how keen their mother is for them to eat well. They’ve never heard of vitamin A or selenium, of course. But they know that if they say yuck to all vegetables of a certain colour, or texture, they’re guaranteed a reaction.

Children don’t fib. They can lie, but not fib. If they don’t like something they won’t beat around the bush. If broccoli is on their ‘on no account to be eaten’ list, they simply won’t deign touch it – except to push it to the side of their plate. After all there are so many nicer foods to eat, that their mother (or father) will relent and give them if they stick to their guns. So why should they eat broccoli?

Small children are ideologues in the kitchen. They think they know what they like with such a passion that no amount of persuading can convince them otherwise. Toby is grown up now. But when he was three his favourite colour was red and his least favourite vegetables were broccoli and sweet potato. Full stop. And he enforced his dislikes with a zeal that reflected the powerlessness he felt over what was spooned on to his plate at meal times.

Mummy says I have to eat broccoli and sweet potato. Therefore I refuse to eat broccoli or sweet potato. It isn’t the broccoli that is the problem. It’s mummy making me eat it that’s the problem. And so Toby pushes his plate away and digs his heels in. Meanwhile my friend frowns and frets about her son’s vitamin intake.

When I myself got around to having children, I wasn’t an easy-going mother in the kitchen. I cared about what my children ate from day one. I made them eat their vegetables, just as my mother made me eat mine. My husband disagreed, but I felt instinctively that nutrition was more important than food preferences. I might disguise certain foods, but they were still there, hiding.

Thankfully our vegetable wars are now past (bar with my husband, who won’t touch salad, zucchini or aubergine). My daughter Emma no longer eats one sweetcorn kernel at a time. She doesn’t sit for an entire meal with a piece of meat gristle stuck inside her cheek. Whereas she used to get a kick out of making a fuss with her food, she now takes pride in not making a fuss, and gets genuinely upset when she doesn’t like something I’ve cooked.

In theory this should make my job as a mother in the kitchen easier. Yet weirdly it hasn’t. What I realised, a couple of years ago, is that if I wanted my family to appreciate good food, I had to be able to cook it. I don’t care so much about healthy food, a concept I find tiresome, or restaurant food – which my children don’t particularly like. I mean food that my family genuinely enjoys eating and that is good for their bodies too. I had to be good at cooking flourishing food.

I’ve never considered myself a particularly good cook. I’m a fairly good cook. But even a fairly good cook requires a certain fluency, if she’s not to spend her life pouring over cookery books, or feeling burnt out every night half an hour before supper. Once I had a family to cook for I needed a deeper understanding of cooking than I’d got away with previously, when I had a few set dishes and winged it the rest of the time.

I never thought, before having a family, that not being able to make a pie crust, or a thick hollandaise, really mattered. Nobody noticed. But now it does matter. If I’m not to become bored out of my mind cooking the same things, I need to be able to be more adventurous in what I cook, and to lead from the front in terms of introducing new dishes.

But sometimes I struggle to be gracious. I don’t remember signing anything that said that I’d be cooking seven evening meals a week for the foreseeable future, plus lunch and breakfast. I was never trained to do three entirely different housekeeping tasks at once. Look at the bottom of my heavy cooking pots, and see the carnage there – the holes in the enamel that Le Creuset boasts never happen.

Night after night I serve flourishing food. I try my best to make light of what seems an endless carnival of meals. Thankfully family is grateful for my efforts, even my less than wonderful dishes. As I stand in my kitchen each evening, psyching myself up to cook something I myself would like to eat, I feel invisible solidarity with every other mother (and father) who is standing in the kitchen at roughly the same moment, wondering what to rustle up for dinner.