HelenHayward

life writing

Month: March, 2013

Looking after me

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Recently a friend of my husband’s came to stay for a friend’s wedding. The night before the wedding – a showy event with ex-media-colleagues – she came down with bronchitis, and so never got to step out in her new dress. Instead there she was, struck down with a sore throat and a cough, seriously unwell in the house of people she didn’t know terribly well.

I didn’t mind a bit, and made her chicken soup and hot lemon and honey as a matter of course. On her second afternoon here I woke her from an afternoon sleep with mint tea. ‘Thank you so much’, she said, pleased but clearly awkward. ‘Please don’t worry’, I returned. ‘This is what I do for all my family, so you mustn’t feel embarrassed’, I replied. She smiled, coughed some more, and reached for a tissue.

Looking after my family when they’re sick is, for me, an extension of how I look after them the rest of the time. I don’t say this aloud, but I see this as an intrinsic part of my job as a mother and wife. I look after my family in a way that makes them feel okay about being unwell – rather than fretting about what they’re missing out on, or feeling guilty at putting me out. I’m no saint, but for me it’s completely natural to cook for them, and to dream up things things for them to do. And, with any luck, one day my children will do the same for whoever they end up loving.

First it was my daughter who came down with a bad cold. A change of season, a morning of getting soaked sailing, and friends coughing all over the place at school (her expression). Then my son came down with it, the germs of which he – disdaining tissues – generously slathered over everything he touched. All the while I had my own little cold, suppressed by garlic, a work deadline – and a refusal to lie down.

Then it was my husband’s turn. ‘I think I’ve got the bug’, he says, putting his head round the kitchen door, looking mournful. He mutters something about heading up to bed, his computer and a stack of The West Wing DVDs tucked under his arm. And there he stays, waiting hopefully for food to appear on a tray – which I obligingly bring. ‘I’m going to reform my life’, he tells me late afternoon, as I perch on the end of our bed. ‘I’ve wasted so much time’, he continues, in clear need of sympathy – which, of course, he instantly rebuts when I offer it.

Meanwhile my suppressed cold takes a turn for the worse, making me sweat and tightening my chest. Now I have no choice but to look after myself. But instead of going to bed early – and telling my husband it’s time to stop watching The West Wing – I stay up late, basking in the quiet that my sleeping children give me. I forget that I’m unwell and instead get caught up with facebook – and Sheryl Sandburg’s Lean In storm – along with the links put up by generous friends.

Brushing my teeth in the bathroom, a question comes to me. What does Sheryl Sandberg do when everyone in her home falls ill at the same time? Does she privately panic – as I do? Or does she soldier on with painkillers – and ask her nanny to stay late? Does she feel more indispensible in her facebook office, than at home?

I fall into bed, hug the back of my snuffling husband, and sleep deeply, rain pouring down on our corrugated iron roof. In my dream I wake, get out of bed, and cross the hall landing. Barack Obama is reading my son a poem in Alex’s bedroom. Obama is reading thoughtfully, with no sense of hurry, and I think how lucky Alex is to have a poem read to him in this way.

When the alarm really does go off, I take comfort in my dream. It’s not just us. My family and I are part of the wider world. I’m not the sole skipper of our ship. My children, now teenagers, can find something of what they need from other people (albeit not Barack Obama). As can I.

And yet the stubborn question remains. Who, I wonder, looks after me when I’m feeling lousy? Who takes over the breakfast shift and the school run? My plaintiff answer is no-one. There is no-one else who looks after me, takes over from me, when I’m sick. No-one who brings cups of tea to my bedside, takes over the housekeeping, and cooks dinner.

But I know in my heart this isn’t quite true. Certainly the woman at the compound pharmacy, who makes a special brew for me to take three times a day, looks after me. And there is always me. I can look after myself when I’m feeling lousy. It’s harder than looking after the people I love – shepherding them into early bed and making honey, mint and lemon drinks. But it’s the same principle. After all, I am one of the people I love. What better excuse – than a bad cold – can there be for buying six oysters, and eating them idly on the docks?

Domestic madness

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Pregnant with my son, and so at home more during the day, I started noticing an elderly neighbour sweeping leaves from the pavement in front of her house, wearing a dustcoat and flesh-coloured tights. As I brushed past this woman on my way to the train station, she seemed a relic from another era. Perhaps she was, however what I now realise is that every woman (and man) who keeps an attractive home must have a streak of this madness. But also, what I didn’t realise then, as I rushed by, late for work, was how profoundly satisfying this madness can be.

One of the criticisms of housekeeping, often given with a sidelong glance at house-proud women, is that it stretches like an accordion. Well yes, housekeeping does expand without end. Even so few of us reach anywhere near the standards recommended by housekeeping experts. Asthma is on the rise, yet how many of us regularly air our children’s bedding? Food poisoning is common, yet how many of us date everything that goes into our freezer? Were it lived to the letter our domestic lives would be a noose of details. We’d never get out the front door – let alone to work. All of us, to the degree that we invest in our homes, live in a constant struggle with a job never done.

Housekeeping really does escalate once children enter the equation. The chores that I once got away with once a week, I find now demand my near daily attention. Growing up in a large family, my mother would sweep the kitchen floor each morning with what seemed religious fervour. However what I failed to appreciate, back then, and do now, is that there’s never a right time to sweep the kitchen floor. And also, that when a family eats most of their meals in the kitchen, it just will require regular sweeping.

One morning, feeling domestic madness about to envelope me, I sat down and wrote a list of the kinds the tasks that, joined together, regularly drive me to the domestic edge. Surely, I said to myself, there must be something wrong with me that a quick clean up should so regularly stretch into my work time?

This is the list of what I regularly spend my time doing, when really I should be doing more important things (housekeeping being closer in my mind to an obstacle course, than to real work). My list starts with the obvious before spiralling to the smaller tasks that, I think, account for housekeeping’s accordion-like stretch.

Here goes: ‘Clearing up the kitchen, putting dishes away, making beds, opening or closing windows, cleaning up the bathroom, deciding what’s for supper, putting away clothes, gathering up pyjamas, ditto shoes, sweeping the kitchen floor, putting out the rubbish, hanging up washing, basic ironing, watering plants, vacuuming, changing sheets, picking up stray toys, opening mail and bills, dusting, mending, cleaning the hob, keeping an eye on what’s in the fridge, switching off unused appliances, writing lists, collecting library books, cleaning the water filter, soaking clothes, clearing fluff from the dryer, checking vases, sorting underwear, thinking I must get out the cobweb brush, draining the kettle, gardening.’

Please don’t mistake my list. Reading it through now, it seems faintly silly – like a list someone from The Magic Faraway Tree might come up with. Besides I don’t actually do all these things. I can’t remember when I last peered into the kettle, with cleaning it in mind, or for that matter changed the water in a vase. However when I’m in housework mode it does cross my mind that at some point I really should do these things. Also note the lack of order and hierarchy in my list, which is exactly how I go about working though it. I’ve never thought to myself, ‘I really must change the vacuum cleaner bag this morning’. Instead I’ll start vacuuming, dust comes through, and I’ll realise, bother it, that the bag needs changing.

The problem with housekeeping is that it has to be done in our own home, our own time – and minus an audience for our efforts. And unless housekeeping is a job that you pay someone else to do, you never really get to the end of your list. (And even if you do employ someone to clean, you have to draw the line somewhere if you want her to keep coming.) Instead housekeeping, and our constant need to do it, lurks at the back of our minds, pushing its way forward before visitors arrive or, for whatever reason, our domestic life starts to unravel.

The child is still sufficiently alive in most of us to feel quiet outrage at the parade of tasks that a family’s upkeep requires. Housekeeping, note, isn’t the same as housework. It’s a far larger animal, consuming far more time and energy than the relatively tame housework animal. None of us is so versatile that we’re good at every aspect of housekeeping (cooking, organizing, playing, cleaning, nursing, and, changing the battery in the smoke alarm).

But I want to end on an up note. Which is that there’s something rather wonderful about feeling on top of housekeeping – rather than it being on top of me. It doesn’t happen that often, but it does happen. My children, of course, thinks it is normal to come home at the end of the day, drop school bags in the hall, and be welcomed into a well-running house. Only I know what a daily miracle it really is.

International Women’s Day

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The Classic FM breakfast host let her guard slip this morning – International Women’s Day. ‘And what do you think?’ she asked, as a segue into the next piece of music. ‘Do we even need an International Women’s Day?’ And then, as if in answer to her question, ‘But then there are only two women players in the Vienna Philharmonic – which is just dreadful’.

Filling up water bottles, snapping lunchboxes shut, wiping down the kitchen table and grabbing work from my desk, before my daughter and I dash out to the car for the school run – these are not the most conducive moments to wonder whether we still need an International Women’s Day.

Half an hour later, walking uphill over a strip of bush overlooking Hobart, I have time to think. My track veers left into blackened bush, over tufts of burnt grass, inky black with rain. Life’s inessentials drift through my mind – I must remember to stop by a cash machine, pick up fish for dinner, drop off our broken DVD player and visit the post office. It takes a while for this flotsam to disperse and for larger themes to elbow their way to the fore.

Leaving the burnt scrub behind, the track evens out. My thoughts take a leap back twenty-five years, when, living in London, I befriended two young English women. A particular summer holiday rushes into my mind, when the three of us stayed in a farmhouse in southwest France. It was hot, dusty and the surrounding villages – all walkable to – were enchanting.

At the time the three of us had ‘proper jobs’ in London. Even so our futures were as open – and inviting – as the evening skies. I spent my time scribbling book reviews on the front verandah, and doing some landscape drawings. Kate made shortcrust pastry and dreamt of living permanently abroad. Sam read, drew and made mental maps of future novels.

Life was unfolding. However nothing big had happened to any of us. Kate had a childhood love that would shape the course of her life far more than she then realised. Sam, the daughter of a charismatic father and a brave but slightly embittered feminist mother, struggled to embrace one of her many possible futures. And me? I too was being formed by internal dramas, far more than I’d have admitted at the time.

Were these individual dramas, our personal efforts to shape a life for ourselves, influenced by gender? I certainly didn’t think so at the time. But I’m not so sure now. Perhaps finding a place in the world is still more difficult for women, than for men. Biology is no longer destiny – even the Vienna Philharmonic is being forced to offer blind auditions. But what if it’s not our biology so much as our personal complexes – the unspoken dramas that shape our souls – that are our destiny? Personal complexes that can’t help but be coloured by gender?

What if, I allow myself to think, women’s personal complexes continue to curtail their sense of entitlement? What if, no matter how talented a young woman is – how seemingly open her horizons – she ends up caring about all the wrong things? What if, in middle age, she ends up caring about servicing the DVD and buying fish for dinner, rather than leaving a lasting intellectual legacy, or some such?

Every year Sam sends me a birthday card – a true friend. This year’s card has on the front a photo of African women wearing hand-knitted colourful scarves. In her scrawling hand – made more scrawly for being written in bed – Sam tells me she is recovering from a virus that she’s had on and off for five weeks. Hence her day off work – helping children whose second language is English. She sounds reconciled with the way her life is going, but not triumphant. Grateful yet not buoyant.

By chance I also receive a missive from Kate, who I’d lost touch with for a few years. She is still working as the PA of the MD of an international cigarette company. She loves living in Madrid, even though her life there isn’t easy. Her older partner has been hit by cancer, she writes, and can no longer work. This means that the house in the country that they’ve painstakingly renovated over ten years must go on the market. She is sad but stoical – admirably so.

Sam, Kate and myself – three women living in different corners of the world, no longer young but not yet old. Women whose lives, to a large degree, have been defined by our loves, rather than by our careers. Women for whom life somehow happened – just as we were busy making plans for it. International Women’s Day.